B.C. icon helped hold Whistler together at crucial time

In the minds of many British Columbians, Whistler became a spoiled, privileged child the day the provincial government stepped in to bail out the bankrupt resort municipality during the recession of 1981-82. As the Vancouver Sun stated so smugly in an editorial at that time: "It's too bad that Whistler's bubble has burst, but that's what often happens when people get over-ambitious and try to do too much too soon. If the village hadn't tried to turn itself into a world class ski resort almost overnight, it wouldn't be in the difficulties it's in now."

The municipality never was bankrupt, although its Whistler Village Land Company met the technical definition. It had debts it couldn't pay, no cash flow because no one was buying development parcels in the new village and its lenders were calling loans. If the land company had declared bankruptcy what would have happened to the municipality was anyone's guess.

This was the era when interest rates were above 20 per cent. Only about 60 per cent of Whistler property taxes were paid on time in 1982 because under provincial law municipalities were only allowed to charge 10 per cent interest on late payments. The RMOW's cost of borrowing money to make up for the late tax payments in 1982 was estimated to be about $70,000.

Few people beyond B.C. had heard of Whistler at this point. The village consisted of the buildings surrounding Village Square and a whole bunch of unfinished foundations. Rebar stuck out of the snow everywhere.

And the recession was only one of the disasters that plagued the fledgling village in 1982. The year began with a fire that severely damaged the Keg building just days before it was to open. In March a massive wall of snow slid off the roof of the Whistler Village Land Company's unfinished Resort Centre, shearing off glu-lam fascia boards and damaging the roof. Meanwhile a group of citizens began circulating a petition to legalize gambling and encourage development of a casino in the village, which they maintained would provide tax revenue and encourage investment.

It was in the midst of this calamity that the province did step in - after some behind the scenes lobbying from Whistler. Premier Bill Bennett appointed Chester Johnson to chair the board of a new Crown corporation, Whistler Land Company, which assumed all of the Whistler Village Land Company's assets and liabilities. Johnson immediately became the most powerful man in Whistler.

Johnson was a businessman with roots in British Columbia's main industry, forestry. Born and raised in Vancouver, he founded Whonnock Industries in 1961. He went on to head the West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. and Western Pulp Inc. From 1984 to 1987 he was chair of B.C. Hydro. He then became the first chair of the Vancouver Airport Authority, overseeing the transfer of the airport from the federal government to the local authority. Johnson also served as director of finance for Expo 86 and chaired the transportation committee when Vancouver was bidding for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

What Johnson brought to Whistler in 1983 was the credibility and backing of the provincial government, including $21 million. Much of that money was used to turn the damaged, unfinished Resort Centre from an ice rink into a conference centre. Johnson did it without consulting anyone in Whistler.

"I'd known Bill Bennett for 35 years and he asked me to go up there and clean up the mess - because it was a mess," Johnson said 10 years ago. "When I first went up there I had to basically get a feeling of what the problems were and where they were. It didn't take me very long. The conference centre was just a pile of dirt, basically. It just wasn't what they needed up there."

Despite his bulldog approach, Johnson and the WLC board eventually listened to the people who drew up and believed in the original plan for Whistler Village. While there were developers who could sense a distressed land sale and bureaucrats in Victoria anxious to expedite sales by "bucking it up into quarter-acre lots," Johnson understood the merits of the village concept and, at a crucial time, stuck to it. The provincial government would get the return on its investment when parcels in Village North were sold.

In an interview in 2000 Johnson said: "You know, although the government put up that money, they got all their money back ten-fold. That $21 million that Bill Bennett put up for us was paid back in spades."

Chester Johnson passed away this week, a month after the Winter Olympics were staged so successfully in the Whistler Village he was instrumental in holding together.


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