June 10, 2011 Features & Images » Feature Story

Is Function Junction Whistler's SoHo? 

Cultural tourism expert sees bright, artistic future for industrial park


There's an electrical box on the south side of Alpha Lake Road a few metres from the highway. It's been painted with pink and blue swirls and it's the only indication that the potential for a hip neighbourhood -- let's call it the New Funky Function - is brewing.

Millions of visitors pass by Function at least twice every year and yet most have no what treasures it hides. While offerings are modest right now, there's little question they will multiply. The colours on the electrical box have faded with time and weather, but they are still a beacon that there's something unique percolating in Function Junction.

For years the neighbourhood has been virtually neglected by the municipality but embraced by Whistler entrepreneurs hoping to set up shop outside the expensive town core. It's gritty, underdeveloped, dusty and one of the few spots in town not conceived under some grand design. To many, it has been and forever will be Whistler's industrial heartland, but for an increasing number of artists, entrepreneurs and interested locals, Function Junction could be the place to combat the homogeneity of Whistler Village.

"I think a lot of business owners and tourists, and locals, are very disenchanted with the village and have been for quite a long time," says Karen Buchanan, co-owner of Function's antique furniture store, Daily Planet.

She came to Function 14 years ago when every other store was industrial. The RMOW paid it no mind. There wasn't even a traffic light at the highway turnoff.

Once Daily Planet had established itself, Buchanan and her partner, Martin Savage, set up a second shop in the village, which operated successfully for seven years. It closed two years ago once the lease came and they decided to focus on the Function location. The truth was, she says, she never felt at home in the village. Function was real - a local's only hangout.

"My dream for Function Junction has always been that it will be like a Granville Island, where you could actually have a live-work space for artists," says Buchanan.

She has noticed more artists' studios, restaurants and other independent business owners, unable to afford the escalating rent prices of the village, setting up shop at the south end of town. Slowly, a community has been growing. Like the electrical box, it's subtle but it's there.

This inspired Steven Thorne, the consultant who authored Whistler's controversial cultural tourism development strategy last year, to label Function "Whistler's Soho."

Of course, Function could never be Soho, of London, England fame. London has centuries of cultural evolution, which has allowed Soho to flourish as it has. Thorne, hired by the RMOW to aid in the development of cultural tourism strategy, never recommended that Function mimic Soho, but rather that Whistler should nurture it to become what it's already on its way to becoming - a creative cultural centre. Like Soho, and New York's East Village and now Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Function Junction is a former cultural wasteland where artists and small businesses congregate thanks to cheaper rent. Like Soho, it could become hip if it's allowed to.

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