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Rent-controlled space in the Village: could it be the future?

Vincent Massey has seen Hornby Island. He's seen Salt Spring Island. He's seen what they offer, how they attract creative types -like Mecca to the Muslims - as a place to create their art and sell it to the droves of visitors when they come.


Vincent Massey has seen Hornby Island. He's seen Salt Spring Island. He's seen what they offer, how they attract creative types -like Mecca to the Muslims - as a place to create their art and sell it to the droves of visitors when they come.

Massey, a potter who has sold his art from his Alpine Meadows home for 25 years, has never even bothered looking to acquire space in Whistler Village, despite the potential boon to his profit margins. His reason is the same as a lot of artists and start-up entrepreneurs.

"Affordability is the main thing," he said.

It's now at the point where most new businesses in the village have recognizable logos, distilling to many what could be an otherwise unique and original mountain town experience for locals and visitors alike.

"I would love to have something in the village that was affordable, even as a group setting," he said.

During his time on the Whistler Arts Council, Massey fought hard for affordable spaces for artists, inside and outside the village. It's been a constant challenge for decades.

But one idea that's been raised - and seemed like it could have been a reality for about a minute - was an incubation program for new businesses, where the units are rent-controlled in order to get new businesses up and running.

"It's one of those concepts that's floating around and is hard to grasp but it comes up every now and then," said Mayor Ken Melamed. "It kind of stalled out because of the hard question about how you actually bring it to reality without a pot of money."

It's a concept that many people, including the mayor, are enthusiastic about and think could eventually work if a funding source can be sorted out. The point, of course, would be to create a funkier, more authentic Whistler retail experience that is not currently being offered in the village. It sprouted from the same Whistler2020 seeds that have compelled the RMOW to create the Cultural Tourism Development Strategy (CTDS) to add some vitality and authenticity to the village, to counter the tepid commercial culture that has been cultivated due to the high cost of rent.

"When you put these bits of information together is where the thought or the concept of a price controlled and occupancy retail product similar to what the housing authority does to residential (facilities)," Melamed said.

The incubation concept had the most potential during discussions by the Lot 1-9 Task Force in how to develop what is now Whistler Olympic Plaza. Initially, the plan was to build a sledge hockey arena with $20 million given to the RMOW by VANOC. Five other buildings would have been built around the stadium, one of which would have been a designated "small format retail/incubator," and modeled after Granville Island, where tenants need to audition for the opportunity to occupy the space.

"The thought (then) was, well do we really need more mainstream commercial space," says former mayor Drew Meredith. "The idea was to offer it to people who wouldn't normally be in the village: artists, artisans, maybe a tailor, to make the spaces smaller and you get the rent down to where it's reasonable."

Council eventually put the kibosh on the arena, effectively killing the incubation program and any plans for retail space around the plaza, though the land is still zoned for commercial real estate.

Rent-controlled retail space is still a favoured model to fight high rent costs in the village for new businesses - particularly in light of the Whistler Housing Authority's success, which the rent-controlled retail concept would likely be modeled after.

But Meredith, a commercial real estate agent, says the idea is still "very doable" and could be very "beneficial to the park area."

"It has to be different than what is being offered," Meredith said. "We could make a two-page list of what's currently not being offered. It's not being offered primarily because of the cost, but it does still beg the question of, 'OK, what would you have to charge to make sure that the project is profitable?' The profitability would be defined by the municipality's risk appetite."

Scott Carrell, outgoing chair of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, says Whistler's economic situation means it's a long ways off from affording a project like this.

Carrell, an entrepreneur who has owned seven stores over the years, including Affinity Sports and the Whistler Clearance Centre, says he's not opposed to the incubation project but it will have to be once Whistler "grows out of its teenage clothes" over the next few years; after the town settles out in the post-Olympic period and the "new world economy" is understood.

"There is just so much turmoil in town from a retail standpoint, from a business value standpoint, from getting into the incubation business, or should I say finding funds for the municipality at this time to start incubating some business," he said.

Instead, they'd be better to utilize the already-popular farmer's market concept and expand it to two days per week in the summer while simultaneously running an artisan market component, possibly in Olympic Plaza, as a way to ease into the incubation concept without committing to building new structures.

An artisan's market is one of the projects being considered for Olympic Plaza by the RMOW and the art's council through the Cultural Tourism Development Strategy.

"That's another way to expose yourself over a short period of time, over a period of weeks if you will. You take your product to the market and understand if the market's interested in your product, without having to take the risk of getting into a retail environment."

The incubation could be one of the later phases in a wider strategy to cradle new businesses and create a new local business environment. Step 1: farmer's market, where potential business operators can get an idea for the demand of their product; Step 2: Reduced rent space at existing empty locations in, say, Creekside, Nesters or the upcoming Rainbow retail units, for those individuals that are ready to face the market; and Step 3: Incubation program, once the need for such a program is assessed and recognized as an essential service to would-be retailers in Whistler.

While there was enthusiasm for the concept, it never went beyond the embryonic stage and hasn't yet been looked at seriously enough to figure out what the cost would be to start this up.

"The next place you go is how do you generate that revenue," Melamed said. "Do you make it by making part of that building commercial and selling it, or do you offset some of those costs through a commercial operation that is municipal or some kind of stand-alone corporation."

One idea, he says, is to create a Whistler retail authority, similar to the WHA, that would act at arm's length from the RMOW, with its own board of directors that would probably have voting strength from council and the municipality in order to protect the ownership and investment.

At present, an incubation program does not have a funding source like the WHA did when it began. Works and service charges imposed by the municipality on new developments raised money for the WHA.

Like the WHA's origins, however, rent-controlled retail would likely be a divisive issue. It took years of experimentation and failure before the concepts behind the WHA became solid enough to move forward to where the authority is today.

"That comes back to (criticisms) that local governments should not be competing with businesses," Melamed said.

Meredith admits there are "all kinds of landmines" associated with this discussion.

"There would probably be some grave concerns about the municipality embarking on any capital project these days, but more importantly getting into the commercial real estate business. I don't see anything wrong with it," he said.

"If it's set up and designed to serve some needs that are not currently being offered by the market, well good. The idea that the municipality might find itself in the position of actually having some positive cash-flow from these assets is really good."

Melamed said he believes the Whistler Chamber of Commerce views "any initiative that would help small business get going in Whistler would be a positive step. The people who have already gotten established I don't think would bear any ill will, as long as this was seen as an incubator and not as a way to compete unfairly with them."

Whistler Chamber of Commerce president Fiona Famulak could not be reached for comment.

Melamed added: "What we hear continuously is nervousness when municipal government gets into business, so we are always looking at ways to spin-off stand-alone entities. It has to be said that this is a very outside of the box concept."

"I think it would be hard to draw the line between, OK, so why would they subsidize my office space as opposed to somebody else that's paying rent full pop, unless you're saying you can only stay there for a year. There has to be some guidelines as to (how this works)," says Kasi Lubin, executive director of the Zero Ceiling Society of Canada, who was also involved with the Lot 1-9 Task Force while acting as executive director and strategic planning project manager for the art's council.

Despite that, she says the fact that people are still considering a progressive solution to high overhead business costs like this is a step in the right direction, and if it is ever set up it would be a boon to the vitality of arts and culture in Whistler.

"If we're really going toward cultural tourism, if that's really going to be something that's going to save our town, which will certainly diversify our town, then we need to create space for that," she said.

If the success and positive response to the WHA is any indication, the Whistler psychology may allow an idea like this, as socialist and progressive as it may seem, to grow and be a success when the time is right. As Vincent Massey says, the community wants to see local business succeed, in any way they can.

"It would get more heart and soul into the village," he said. "For sure. "