The sound of jackhammers has never been confused with the wailing song of the sirens. No one has ever been drawn by the machine-gun bursts of a compressed air demolition machine to seek the source of this tune. So it is not surprising that businesses in the northern corner of Whistler Village Centre are bereft of customers.
In fact, in the area next to where construction crews are dismantling part of a parking structure to build the next Pan Pacific Lodge there are few businesses, and fewer shoppers. Down a corridor, lined on one side by plywood and on the other by paper-covered windows, one business remains open. Inside, three dogs and a clerk at the Puppy Zone listen to the jackhammers all day, until its time for each to go home again. At the other end of the corridor Mountain Craft Gallery is offering up to 70 per cent off on their glass and ceramic art, hoping to sell all the pieces before the vibrations destroy them.
The jackhammers are, of course, temporary although when you are forced to listen to them for hours on end it can be hard to convince yourself of that. But as mind-numbing as they are, the jackhammers are only symbolic of a bigger issue.
The retail business has always been a tough way for small companies to make a go of it. You have to be smart, quick on your feet and in the right place at the right time. This past year or so even that hasnt been enough for some in Whistler Village.
The obstacles facing the tourism industry over the last 12-18 months have been well documented: war in Iraq, a slow economy, SARS, mad cow disease, a rising Canadian dollar, Air Canadas myriad problems. The hotel/accommodation sector and Tourism Whistler can collectively quantify how their business has been affected and provide at least a preliminary forecast for the season ahead. Statistics on room nights, occupancy rates, revenue per available room and advance bookings are all available and can be compared to previous years.
Thats not the case with the numerous small businesses that are the face of Whistler to visitors strolling through the village. Individual business owners, of course, know how they are doing, and some owners probably share information with neighbours and friends in the retail business. But unlike in Colorado, where resort taxes make revenues in every business sector a matter of public record, the small business/retailers in Whistler dont churn out consolidated numbers. As a result, they tend to face problems individually, rather than collectively.
One of those problems is construction. Certainly renovations and maintenance are needed to keep the village attractive. And another new hotel should eventually draw more people to the village. But on a sunny weekday in early September a walk around the village found not only the construction at Whistler Village Centre but renovations to the conference centre, major renovations to the Westbrook Hotel, and sandblasting at one entrance to the Crystal Lodge. All of these projects extended out into the pedestrian areas of the village.
As part of the much-needed village enhancement plan the municipality will at some point renovate Village Square and Mountain Square. Again, all of these projects are worthwhile; its the timing of them and mitigating the impacts on the village businesses that need to be considered.
And then there is the issue of landlords and the 2010 gold rush. There is only anecdotal evidence so far, but some retailers report a lack of interest from landlords in signing long-term leases, which makes it difficult for businesses to formulate long-term plans. The thinking among some landlords, presumably, is that as the Olympic year draws closer the demand for their property will increase and who knows what some tenants may be willing to pay.
A corollary to this may be that some long-term business owners decide to cash out in the years leading up to the Olympics, when their businesses will be worth more than ever and the pressures on businesses are increasing. In either case the question is: Who will be the next generation of business owners/operators in the village?
Whistler was built by small, independent business men and women. The town isnt as small as it once was, but a diversity of independent businesses is still one of the towns, and the resorts, greatest assets. Protecting those assets, while still building for the future, is essential.