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Big box stores may not be welcome in Whistler

New bylaw would limit the size of stores in the village as London Drugs submits application for large presence

Whistler has taken up the fight against big box stores.

On Monday night municipal staff introduced a bylaw that would limit the size of village stores to 5,000 square feet.

That bylaw, if adopted, will send a clear message to future big businesses thinking to open shop in the village. In particular, it could quash the controversial plans from London Drugs to open an 18,000 square foot store in the heart of the village. Those plans were submitted in a rezoning application filed just days before the new bylaw came before council.

Local coffee shop owner Chris Quinlan, who was at the council meeting to hear debate on the bylaw, heralded the move.

"I think the bylaw is fantastic," he said. "It addresses the concerns that we have about keeping small unique businesses operating within the main core of the village."

But that’s just one side of the debate.

On the flip side, local commercial realtor Bob Hamilton, who is not connected to the London Drugs deal, criticized the bylaw.

"I think the free market should prevail," he said. "I think it’s wrong to put any kind of restrictions on anything that’s legal.

"I just think that we have to have something for everybody and that it is wrong to put restrictions on size. Why does size necessarily mean bad?"

And so the debate rages around town as local business owners and residents discuss the merits and pitfalls of allowing more big box stores in the village, perhaps at the expense of locally owned businesses.

Jonathan Lazar, director of commercial property for Maple Leaf Property Management, the company trying to bring London Drugs to their Whistler Village Centre building, questions the definition of "locally owned."

"What defines ‘locally owned’? In order to be ‘locally owned’ do the owners have to live in the Resort Municipality of Whistler, or have an office here? What if they live or have an office in Pemberton of Squamish? Or Richmond? If there is a problem retaining locally owned businesses, can it be proven that the problem is due to the entrance in the market of large stores?" he asked via an e-mail to Pique Newsmagazine.

"I think these questions need to be answered and the problem properly defined before we find solutions. I understand Nesters and The Grocery Store are still doing well, notwithstanding IGA’s 25,000 square foot presence in Whistler for a number of years."

Council is leaving the answer up to the community for now. On Monday they voted to move the proposed bylaw to the next step in the approval process – a public open house – to get feedback from the community before moving ahead with the bylaw or not.

Councillor Nick Davies said he has been weighing both sides of the issue. There are those who want the ability to buy a whole range of goods and services at the lower prices offered in a larger chain store. On the other hand, a plethora of generic multi-nationals in the village will adversely affect the unique shopping hub.

"We have to be mindful of the product we offer the world," said Davies, reminding council that Whistler is a highly planned community which is a factor of its success.

"I’m still open to being persuaded but I’m going to vote in favour of the resolution (to limit the size to 5,000 square feet)," he said.

Municipal Planner Melissa Laidlaw explained the 5,000 square foot cap was chosen after looking at the stores already in the village. Only seven stores exceed that size. They are The Grocery Store, Eddie Bauer, Spirit of the North, Mountain Adventure Centre, and in Marketplace, the IGA, Pharmasave and government liquor store.

These businesses would be exempt, or "grandfathered", from the bylaw, explained Laidlaw.

Sue Adams, co-owner of The Grocery Store, welcomed the move. She said her store is just a little bit bigger than 5,000 square feet.

"After giving it quite a lot of thought, we do enough business out of our store that’s normally done in a store two to three times our size, so we feel that other retailers can certainly do the same and do a good job," she said.

She attributes the steady flow of business at The Grocery Store to their village location and because they specifically target the tourists’ needs.

"I think keeping things small and unique is a good way to go but there needs to be a balance in serving the needs of the resident community as well," she added.

Councillor Kristi Wells also raised this issue of addressing the resident community’s needs. She questioned whether or not the bylaw conflicted with the municipality’s efforts to address resident affordability. For example, larger multi-national stores are oftentimes able to offer lower prices, whereas unique, one of a kind shops may not.

Hamilton echoed those concerns.

"Those of us who live here full time need to be able to buy our merchandise at a fair and level price," he said.

"Keep me going into the village to do my shopping and I will support the rest of the businesses that are in there, the little coffee shops that are around there, the movie theatre, all of that kind of stuff. An anchor tenant like (London Drugs) is going to bring people into the village that wouldn’t normally go."

Quinlan however said that as Whistler residents we have to pay a price for living here, in what is arguably one of the best places in the world to live.

"We make certain sacrifices by being up here, by being able to live in this resort and I don’t think that we necessarily have a right to expect that everything should cost exactly the same as it does in the city," he said.

"We’re conserving the atmosphere of the resort when we do this (pass this bylaw). We’re keeping it unique. We’re keeping it cutting edge."

A date for the public open house has yet to be set.