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Rainbow expansion worries Whistler businesses

Alpine Meadows Market owners voice concern over Rainbow's request for commercial expansion

Rainbow Canuck Properties' (RCP) request to council for an additional 8,000 square feet of commercial space at the Rainbow development just north of Whistler has some local businesses concerned for their own viability.

Developers of the Rainbow commercial space say they can't attract a major retail grocer without the extra square footage. They are currently zoned for 21,500 square feet of commercial space, 1,000 of which is dedicated to a medical practitioner. That leaves 20,500 remaining for commercial use.

The initial master development allowed for an 8,000 square foot grocery store, leaving 12,500 for other uses such as a restaurant/pub, coffee shop, yoga studio, small credit union, or hair salon.

RCP said further research has revealed that major grocers require between 15,000 and 16,000 square feet of space - about the same size as the Whistler Nesters - to be commercially viable. That, plus the square footage needed to include a pharmacy, leaves them without the ability to provide the space for small businesses they promised would be included in the development.

Nearby business owners Brian Kerr and Jeff Heintzman of Alpine Meadows Market feel the expansion and subsequent development of the grocery store will directly impede their ability to operate.

"If council permits the extra square footage it will have a significant negative effect on our business," said Heintzman, who has lived and worked in Whistler for 26 years.

"The gas station/convenience store (at Rainbow) is currently zoned to be the same size as ours. The monopoly on gas in the north end of Whistler will give them a huge advantage over our business and if they are given the additional square footage their store will be twice the size of ours at Alpine Meadows Market - a double whammy."

One of Heintzman and Kerr's biggest concerns is that they were denied permission in the mid-90s to put in a gas station at Alpine Meadows, something that is allowed at Rainbow. They then spent "considerable time and money" on plans for a neighbourhood pub, which they were also barred from developing and spent four years getting permission from council to rezone and renovate the Alpine Café (formerly Gone Bakery).

"To be restricted by our current, very limited zoning, while a developer from Calgary is given over 30,000 square feet to service the same area is neither fair nor equitable," Heintzman continued. "This does not leave any option for us to expand and provide services to our community. It will leave us no opportunity to meet the competition as we are severely restricted by our current zoning. Our lot is huge in comparison to our building size, we would like to have the same ability to expand our services as the Rainbow developers."

Whistler resident and RCP partner Sam Brovender says the additional square footage will allow the development to fulfill what was originally promised to the community. He argues that commercial studies done by RCP show Whistler is underserved by its current grocers, based on population statistics. He thinks long-term growth at Rainbow, Cypress Place, Wedgewood, and Legacy will mean an increase in consumer demand over the next 20 years.

Complicating the issue is that major grocers looking at putting down roots at Rainbow want to provide an in-house pharmacy, something that can't be done without the extra square footage. A stand-alone pharmacy will take a minimum of 4,000 square feet, leaving only 500 square feet for additional services if the additional square footage isn't approved.

While he says he empathizes with the concerns of Heintzman and Kerr, Brovender thinks the user base is different enough that their business won't be impacted.

"I can understand the concern of a grocery store going there and affecting their business but whether it's 8,000 or 16,000 feet - they (public) are going to have enough choices in an 8,000 foot store that would stop them going to the Alpine convenience store.

"Having said that, they have distinctly different users. You don't go to a convenience store to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, you go to a grocery store. You go to a convenience store to buy a quart of milk," said Brovender.

"So my option is to build just the grocery store and have limited other services, or add the density and complete the project. My thought is if I live there, why would I want to have half a grocery store? It means you can get half your stuff there, then have to get in your car to drive to get the rest somewhere else."

Creekside Market owner Jerry Marsh isn't concerned that the Rainbow grocery store will impact his business, but questions whether Whistler requires another grocer.

"I don't think another grocery store is needed, maybe once a year at our busiest time at Christmas there seems to be lineups and it gets pretty busy but I don't know about a full time one - that big of one anyways.

"I wouldn't open it," he said, adding that he has discoursed amicably with Brovender on the subject.

"I think the gas stations is definitely needed at that end of town, the gas station and convenience store, but I can't really see the need of another grocery store in Whistler, myself. I think there is ample."

The Resort Municipality of Whistler's has recommended broader public engagement on the subject. RMOW's planning department is currently working on the file.