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London Drugs very successful in Squamish

But President Wynne Powell says they have not given up on Whistler

London Drugs still has its eye on Whistler.

It's been almost three years since the previous Whistler council voted against an application for rezoning that would have allowed London Drugs to open a 17,000 square foot store in the heart of Whistler Village, but according to company president Wynne Powell they have not conceded anything yet - despite opening a new store in Squamish on Nov. 17.

The new store is 30,000 square feet, far larger than the 17,000 square foot facility planned for Whistler.

"The Squamish opportunity came up and we've been discussing it even before Whistler," said Powell. "It got put together in short order because (Squamish) council wanted it to happen, they have welcomed us and embracedus, as the public has. For our customers in Whistler, until we can get our own store there, when they go back and forth for shopping we hope we can earn their business in the meantime."

The rezoning application was a contentious issue at the time. Supporters gathered more than 1,000 signatures in favour of the rezoning and surveys for London Drugs found most residents to be in favour of the store, which promised prices on par with stores in the Lower Mainland.

However, council did not want to set a precedent that would allow for other big box retailers to move into the village. There were concerns that once the space - formerly occupied by sections of the Alpenrock club and restaurant - was rezoned for retail it could allow for an underground mall, or for other retailers to come in if London Drugs was forced to pull out.

There were also concerns that the store could negatively impact other local businesses, as well as the boutique-style shopping experience in the village.

As well, part of the space was zoned for indoor recreation, which has been identified as a priority to add to the mix of activities during periods of poor weather and for families.

However, since the application for rezoning failed the space has remained empty while the cost of living for residents has increased.

The Whistler 2020 working group on resident affordability has determined that wages are falling well below the cost of living for different economic groups. From 2006 to 2008 the number of seasonal residents making less than required to cover basic living costs - using data from the Canada-wide Market Basket Measure and Federation of Canadian Municipalities - has increased from 66 per cent to 85 per cent.

For residents, the number of residents living below the line has increased from 18 per cent to 31 per cent over the same period.

Powell says they still receive a lot of requests from Whistler residents to open a location in Whistler and that they will continue to look.

"To characterize it that we're in negotiations is incorrect, but characterizing it that we're keeping a very strong eye on Whistler would be accurate," he said. "We bring in 800 people for our fall convention in Whistler, so our senior management and executives are in Whistler during that time. I know they're travelling around the community and looking at retail, seeking opinions and advice, and taking a very close look at the opportunities that might be available."

However, Powell stressed that any future store would need to be located in Whistler Village. Whistler's full time population of 10,000 is not enough to justify a store and any location would need to benefit from the tourist trade.

"We know we had extremely strong community support to put a store there and it was designed in a boutique fashion where we had maybe 4,300 square feet upstairs and another 13,000 square feet below that was out of site, that we felt was a really good concept. The question came up as to why we don't locate a larger store at another location in Whistler versus trying to be in the heart of Whistler, and the problem is financial viability for us. We need the tourism trade, and if we don't get that we don't get our low prices at that location. It wouldn't be a sustainable store."

That said, Powell respects the previous council's decision.

"Obviously we were disappointed but we're a family company based in B.C. and we're 107 years old, so we're patient," he said.

"Things could change and new opportunities could come up... Whistler remains very much a favourite community and as we saw in the polls - I think around 74 per cent - wanted this in Whistler. We were always gratified by the strong support and thank everyone in the community."

Powell reiterated that the decision to locate a store in Squamish was not tied to Whistler's decision, although it has been characterized that way in the past - that Whistler's loss was Squamish's gain.

The London Drugs location in Squamish has been extremely successful to date, said Powell, who apologized for delays in the construction and opening date. Some exterior construction is still ongoing that has tied up part of the parking area and Powell acknowledged that it can be tough to find a parking stall.

He's also proud of what they managed to fit into the location, including the latest model of photo finishing machines, health assessment and skin care areas and a full electronics department with trained staff.

As well, he said the store has looked at ways to be greener. For example, the photo finishing machines use new technology that keeps silver out of wastewater systems. As well, London Drugs is collecting all of the Styrofoam from the items they sell once their customers get their products home safely.

As a result, London Drugs is diverting roughly 4.5 million kilograms of waste from landfills each year, and enough Styrofoam to pack 40 semi-trailers.