With the recent closure of a Starbucks location, another vacancy has been added to the already sparsely populated Village Common commercial area.
According to Larco Investments, one of Canada's largest privately-held real estate companies and landlord for the Starbucks location, the Seattle-based coffee chain has been "rationalizing their operations all across the U.S.," and are now doing the same throughout Canada, explained Rick Amantea, Larco's VP of development.
In June 2018, Starbucks announced it would be closing 150 locations across the U.S. this year, roughly triple the number it shutters annually. With four locations already in Whistler, including two others just blocks away in the village, Amantea said Starbucks, which did not return a request for comment, had to decide "whether or not they need that many stores in a marketplace," and considered "everything from employment cost to the cost of delivering products."
Amantea said rental rates were not a factor in the closure, calling them "competitive for the marketplace." But, judging by the vacancies in Village Common, where Larco manages about 15 retail spaces, with "nine or 10 either leased or occupied or leased and ready for build-out," according to Amantea, they certainly appear to be a barrier to some prospective tenants.
"If there was an incentive for small business to go into those small spaces, they certainly would have done so," said long-time retailer and Councillor John Grills. "That's a concern, period, just with the base lease rates you hear about on the [Village] Stroll, those are definitely at a historic high. It makes you wonder how the small independents will survive."
Amantea wouldn't say what the lease rate was at the former Starbucks space, but according to Rene Gauthier, founder of ecologyst (formerly Sitka), who rented a space from Larco next to Village 8 until this spring, the per-square-foot rate was "identical" to the much busier location along the Village Stroll where ecologyst now operates.
"I think businesses would go in there if the lease rate properly reflected the store traffic, but I think that landlord wants to get [Village] Stroll rates in there," he said.
"It's an issue across B.C., across Canada, where landlords don't want their rates to drop because then they can't borrow as much money against that property. They're incentivized to have nobody in there rather than see their lease rate drop because all of a sudden their borrowing power drops with that."
One of those long-term vacancies is the large, 20,000-square-foot space at 4295 Blackcomb Way that has sat empty since the AlpenRock House closed in 2002. Last year, a proposal by National Beerhall Inc. to bring in a bowling alley, restaurant, patio and game centre drew swift backlash from the local bar and restaurant sector over the project's extensive size and staffing requirements. Ultimately, the proponent became "increasingly uncomfortable with what they were being asked to do in their facility," mostly surrounding the requirement to have "youth under the age of majority in the premises throughout the opening hours," said Amantea, who added that Larco is looking for a concept that will fill both the upper-level and underground spaces.
Worried about the impression the vacancies in the area give off, Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Melissa Pace said she has recently discussed the possibility of beautifying Village Common and the nearby courtyard with the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).
"Between Starbucks and that whole section, it really is not an inviting image that we as a community want to have—not only for the community, but for our visitors who come to Whistler and look at that," she said. "It's a direct reflection on our community and how business is prospering or not."
According to Grills, who sits on the municipal Economic Partnership Initiative Committee, the RMOW is eager to see reinvestment in the area.
"Anytime a large complex like that would come forward to the muni saying, 'We want to do building envelope restoration,' or 'We want to do a renovation that's going to enhance that area,' that's something the municipality has said it's very much open to," he said. "I know the planning department is very keen to have those applications coming in. We're certainly not stopping them."
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the address of the Starbucks location that was shuttered.