Difficult as it is to believe I have no real opinion one way or the other about London Drugs and their long, costly, and ultimately futile struggle to open a store in Whistler. For now the dream is over… Council has spoken. This council, anyway — I can see this thing coming back from the dead over and over again like Chucky.
As it currently stands the former Alpenrock space will not see its current mishmash of restaurant, recreation and office zoning amended to allow retail, enabling the construction of an 18,000 square foot London Drugs store in the village. Instead, it looks as if we’ll have a new bylaw in town limiting retail spaces to under 5,000 square feet.
The goal, according to the new municipal retail study, is to promote a unique mix of shopping experiences in the village, although exactly how they’ll accomplish this I have no idea. As far as I know the RMOW can’t dictate how much commercial landlords can charge or what stores can move where, except when rezoning is required. And retail is retail, whether you’re selling fur hats or bongs.
We’ve already lost our music store (Bestsellers), our head shop (Willy’s), our arts and crafts shop (Lotus), and a few of our funkier establishments are clearly struggling. If the book store ever closed, I’d seriously consider leaving town.
But back to London Drugs.
Its detractors said it would destroy other retailers in the village, leveraging a sweet rent deal and a level of buying power other businesses can’t match.
Its supporters said it would save retail in the village by acting as a magnet store for locals and visitors.
Its detractors said that if that was the case, increased traffic to the village would drive up rents for other stores even further.
Its supporters said it was necessary to make Whistler affordable to employees.
Its detractors said the loss of recreational space would make Whistler less amenable to visitors.
Its supporters said an overwhelming number of people surveyed supported it.
Its detractors said an overwhelming majority of village retailers opposed it, including the entrepreneurs who took a chance on Whistler in the early years and helped build this town.
The debate has been dizzying, leading me to support London Drugs one moment and oppose it the next. After a while I just stopped caring, which is probably why I officially have no opinion. I can sum up my feelings on this issue in two sentences:
If London Drugs was approved, I would probably shop there. It wasn’t, and I probably won’t miss it.
But while the issue is moot for now, let’s at least put things into perspective for both sides so we can go on with our lives.
First of all, no one store can fix all the problems of Whistler, no matter how many square feet of shopping it offers or how low its prices.
Secondly, though we’d all prefer a Village Stroll lined with unique and interesting shopping experiences, that ship has sailed — chain stores already outnumber independents by a wide margin, and retail spaces will always be impossible to buy and expensive to lease.
Thirdly, the proposed London Drugs space will likely never be used for recreational purposes, given the way business fluctuates, and the limit as to what people are willing to pay to recreate. It’s mainly an issue of square footage — shops that sell products with large profit margins, like clothes and jewelry, are surviving, while shops that sell products with small margins like CDs have failed — largely because of the need to make a certain amount of money per square foot to be profitable.
For example, a small pool table takes up just 21 square feet, but it’s really 163 square feet when you include cue length. At $100 per square foot rent (on the mid-to-high side for Whistler), that little table would have to generate $16,300 per year just to break even. A liquor and food license would help, but also nullifies the whole “family recreation” angle.
Now compare the cost of that pool table to something like a jewelry case that can hold thousands of dollars in product. Not only can you get by with a smaller store, you can also make more per square foot.
It’s time for everyone to be realistic. The village we all wish we had — the one where you drop by the corner newsstand to pick up a magazine, browse CDs at the funky independent music store, stop by the bakery and the cheese shop to pick up supplies for dinner, check out the puppies playing in the window of the local pet store, and grab a bottle of wine from a proprietor who knows your name and tastes before hopping on a bus home — is a pipe dream. The cost per square foot is what dictates the kinds of shops we can have in Whistler, and why a unique mix is an impossibility.
In the last municipal election, candidate Michael d’Artois put his finger on the root of the problem. In the past, Whistler allowed developers to build hotel space with main floor shops throughout the village, then sell off the rooms while maintaining ownership of the retail. The exact opposite should have happened, with developers maintaining ownership of hotel rooms (and thereby taking a greater interest in the success of the resort), while selling off the retail spaces to entrepreneurs ensure the mix of stores we all envision.
The window of opportunity slammed shut decades ago, and now we’ve pulled the curtains on London Drugs. What’s next?