By Loreth Beswetherick Three new applications for liquor licences could see the number of licensed drinking seats in Whistler pushed over the 29,000 mark and that has the competition worried. Add to this a potential for a 50 per cent increase in licensed capacity for some local establishments under amendments to the provincial liquor licence regulations, and Whistler’s drinking figure starts edging closer to the 3,000-seat mark. Bar owners are saying there are already too many seats in the community and there is now a threat of bar price wars looming for next month. President of the Whistler Food and Beverage Association, Dale Schweighardt, said the price wars can be expected in the lean shoulder season month of October, when competition gets really stiff. "All of our members are feeling the effect of too many licensed seats right now," said Schweighardt. "We are in a position where some businesses may not be able to survive on the one or two nights a week they have to get by on at the moment. Right now, from Sunday through Thursday, you can shoot a cannon through any room in town." In a bid to block some of the new seats, most of the larger Class A, C and D licence holders, including Whistler-Blackcomb, have signed a letter to the mayor and council asking council to deny any more than one liquor licence for the new Westin Hotel on the grounds there are enough liquor seats in town. The Westin application is one of the three currently being made to the province for licensed seats. Council recently endorsed the Summit Lodge's application for a class A pub with a maximum of 65 drinking seats. They also supported a Chateau Whistler application to expand the Mallard Bar and change the licence from an A pub to and A lounge which allows for an increase from 82 to 150 seats. The Westin application, which has yet to be dealt with by council, is for a Class A lounge with 192 seats plus a Class A pub with 125 seats. The Westin has also applied for a 149-seat licensed private club, intended only for strata unit owners and their guests. Municipal staff and the Whistler Liquor Licensing Advisory Committee are currently working through the details of the private club application, which will likely be presented to council some time later this month. These applications will still need final approval from the provincial liquor licensing authority but, as Schweighardt said: "If council gives approval its practically a rubber stamp. It would be very difficult for anybody to get a liquor licence without municipal approval." The latest applications come on the backs of several new liquor seats granted or activated in Whistler over the last two years, including AlpenRock House with over 400 seats, Dubh Linn Gate, the Brew House, the new Garfinkel’s location and the Rogue Wolf, which briefly became Capone’s and is now Moe Joe's. "We fear the municipality is losing control of what's happening," said Schweighardt,. "This is not a problem of too many T-shirt shops. It's a social situation where alcohol is involved and its supposed to be regulated and controlled." Most Whistler drinking establishments are members of the Patron Dispersal Program established about six years ago. It's essentially a gentleman's agreement where members follow a code of responsible service and abide by a minimum drink price to avoid deep discounting and over consumption. Membership allows establishments to stay open half an hour longer — not to serve more liquor but to allow patrons more time to leave. This prevents all the bars disgorging patrons at the same time and reduces noise, congestion and fights in the village. Currently the minimum price of drinks has been set at 20 cents per ounce of draft beer and $3 per highball. But Schweighardt says the program is being compromised by the need to survive. There is currently overcrowding and aggressive competition. Price wars last October saw two key establishments pull out the program, Tommy Africa's and the Savage Beagle. "The situation now is much the same as last year," said Schweighardt. "Clubs are busy two nights a week and businesses can't operate that way. They have mortgages, payrolls and lease payments to meet. When you are not meeting them you have to generate cash flow and the fastest way to do that is cheap drinks." The Westin’s liquor licence application in particular has also drawn heavy criticism from Dick Gibbons, owner of both the Longhorn Saloon and Buffalo Bill’s. In a letter to council Gibbons said over-licensing has resulted in the promotion of activities in clubs that are not in the best interests of the community. "This kind if activity is a predictable result of over-licensing and can escalate to a level much worse than anything experienced in Whistler to date," said Gibbons. "Also, if (consultant Jo Surich’s) report to government is implemented — and it appears to be a certainty — existing establishments will be getting an increase in licensed seats to bring them up to fire marshal limits. If the Westin were to receive anything more than a single license, an already fragile situation will become a threat to the stability of the community." Gibbons is also on the provincial advisory committee charged with implementing the new regulations. Several similar letters have been sent to council but Hick and Associates, who is applying on behalf of the Westin, said most are from friends of Gibbons or shareholders of the company that owns Bill’s and the Longhorn. Drew Meredith, realtor and past mayor, pointed out in a letter to council that Gibbons has opposed every liquor application since 1980. How much of the objection to the new seats is just disgruntled opposition to new competition, and how much is real fear that Whistler will be pushed over the edge into chaos is something the Liquor Licensing Advisory Committee is grappling with. The committee, which makes recommendations to council, is comprised of municipal planner Mike Kirkegaard, food and beverage industry representatives Ron Hosner and John Grills, public health nurse Marilyn McIvor and RCMP Staff Sgt. Frank Shedden. They have endorsed the last set of applications. Kirkegaard said the committee felt the five-star Westin, with its extensive conference and banquet facility, is likely to cater to a different type of clientele. "We felt the seats for the lounge and pub are appropriate for that scale of hotel. We felt it would not be competing with the cabarets." Kirkegaard said the committee recognizes price wars and the patron program could become an issue. "There was that concern with AlpenRock but less of a concern with the Westin." Kirkegaard said the committee hasn’t had a lot of policy direction to date and has been using the 1997 Panell Kerr Forster review as a policy reference. The Panell Kerr Forster report suggests general market forces should prevail. Although new provincial licensing regulations are to be phased in over the next two to three years, the province hasn’t decided what calculations will be used to determine building capacity. One of Surich’s recommendations was establishment’s should be able to increase their number of seats to existing building capacity, up to a maximum of 50 per cent. Kirkegaard said the fire code, building code or Liquor Act — which sets space requirements per person for establishments — could be used. The implementation will be done in a number of pilot communities throughout the province, of which Whistler could be one. Council has made it clear to the province it wants final say on any local increases. Whether that will happen has yet to be decided. One of the local establishments most likely to benefit from this new regulation is Buffalo Bill’s. Kirkegaard said the increase in seats in terms of this regulation could be significant. As of last week the number of licensed seats was at 28,576, making Whistler the most heavily licensed jurisdiction, per capita, in B.C.