Driving into the centre of Whistler, visitors must first pass the original home of the resort, Whistler Creekside, where now-prominent citizens worked as young lifties in a laidback hippie community that is consigned to history.
Thanks to its location four kilometres south of the village, the first runs of the resort one sees are Creekside's, but one first has to see past vacancy and for sale signs because filling large commercial spaces in the area remains a challenge.
"Unfortunately, it seems like quite a bit of empty space around here... We definitely prefer to have these places filled," said Jerry Marsh, the owner of Whistler Creekside Market. "I don't know why this is the case. Maybe it needs a familiar name in that spot, like the Cactus Club, in order to succeed."
The plight of Creekside is not going unnoticed by Florida-based real estate investment trust CNL Lifestyle Properties, Inc., which owns most of Whistler Creekside. It has just erected a new way-finding sign along the highway to try and draw attention to the pedestrian village and what it has to offer.
That "took several years to get approved," said Steve Rice who manages the trust's Ski and Mountain Lifestyle portfolio, which also includes three properties in Canada, including Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver and Village at Blue Mountain, near Toronto.
Rice will be in Whistler over Christmas for meetings; he is also aware of discussions around the idea to convert lifts at Creekside during the summer to allow for mountain bikes to be taken up Whistler to access the bike park on the other side.
"The chairlift is just sitting there, I could see why that would make a lot of sense... It is the quickest way to get up the mountain," he said.
The company purchased an 80 per cent stake in Creekside in 2004.
Rice said occupancy rates in seven of CNL Lifestyle's commercial ski village properties consistently stay above 90 per cent. Whistler Creekside's occupancy rate was about 92 per cent, he estimated.
"The (former) Zen (restaurant) space is a significant anchor restaurant space that has been vacant for a couple of years at least. We're actually thinking of repurposing it, somehow. We've got some ideas we're exploring, though it is set up nicely as a restaurant," Rice said.
"You can't just drive by in a vehicle and see the space and see a vacancy sign and go 'hmm, I could do something with that.' You not only have to drive into Creekside Village, you have to cross the pedestrian bridge and walk up towards the lift. So it's a little off the beaten path when it comes to vehicular or pedestrian traffic flow.
"We've suffered a little bit for the lack of prominent visibility of that space. That said, we think it's a strong space, right across from Dusty's."
Doc Brannigan's restaurant is currently for sale through The Whistler Real Estate Company for $2 million. The largest empty property in Whistler Creekside, the North Shore Credit Union foreclosed on its mortgage earlier this year following the collapse of the owning parent company Player's Chophouse Vancouver/Player's Chophouse Whistler.
Allan Jenner of The Whistler Real Estate Company said he could see a prospective buyer wanting to repurpose the distinctive property, which sits above Highway 99 on Lake Placid Road, "for office space, or something like that."
"It should have great appeal. Effectively, when you're entering the resort at Creekside, it's really the entry point," Jenner said.
"I can't see the municipality wanting to see the lights turned off with a 'for sale' sign. Whenever I go to places like Palm Springs, or something like that, and see a lot of for lease signs, the place is not doing well."
Last spring G.P. Rollo & Associates completed a study into Whistler's projected commercial space requirements until 2020 for the Resort Municipality of Whistler. The Commercial and Industrial Land Use Study includes policy recommendations for commercial and industrial planning.
It said Creekside's vacancy rate was nine per cent, slightly higher than the overall Whistler vacancy rate of 7.7 per cent — though the study was done before Doc Brannigan's closed earlier this year. This represented occupied commercial inventory at Creekside of 99,829 square feet out of a total commercial property square footage of 109,732, or 9,903 square feet of empty space.
Empty restaurants seem to be a key challenge. In terms of Creekside restaurants alone, the total square footage in the study is 30,241; just three sites, the empty Doc Brannigans (at 6,687 sq.-ft.), the former Zen Sushi (3,372 sq.-ft.), plus one other empty property at 110 – 20591 Lake Placid Road (2,809 sq.-ft.) make up 12,871 sq.-ft. of currently unused space.
"...Creekside continues to struggle from a leasing perspective and its built form — particularly along Franz's Trail — will continue to act as an impediment to tenant attraction and retention," the report said, adding that, "New visions for the Creekside area, specifically Franz's Trail, are recommended."
It suggested bolstering Creekside by giving it a cultural precinct role.