“Last person leaving Whistler, please turn out the lights.”
Spring in Whistler is so full of distractions (skiing, biking, golfing, climbing, WSSF, Dine In Whistler…) you might be excused if you hadn’t noticed that a provincial election campaign is well underway.
Regardless of your level of awareness, the election is happening May 14th, and it matters. Want proof? Well if it weren’t for some very heavy involvement by our provincial government three decades ago, Whistler as we know it simply would not exist.
By 1980 the highway from Vancouver had finally been paved, the RMOW had been formed, a recently opened Blackcomb Mountain was shaking up the global ski scene, and construction was well underway turning Eldon Beck’s vision for Whistler Village into reality.
But what should have been a time to rejoice was quickly turning into a nightmare scenario.
A major recession hit North America in late 1981. The economy was failing, real estate sales plummetted, interest rates were in the %20-%25 range, and the Whistler Village Land Company (the provincial crown corporation set up to oversee the development of Whistler Village) was on the verge of bankruptcy. As long-time Whistlerite and ski-resort-management guru Peter Alder recalls, the mood was so pessimistic that a common catchphrase around town was “Last person leaving Whistler, please turn out the lights.”
At this point much of the original village (which spans from Skier’s Plaza to the pedestrian bridge over Village Gate boulevard) had been built, but several buildings remained in varying states of construction: exposed re-bar, concrete foundations, and boarded-up windows were everywhere. There was a serious risk that the original plan for the village would be abandoned, undeveloped lots would be sold off to recover debts, and these properties would then be developed without any over-arching design.
Thankfully, the provincial government, then led by Bill Bennett Jr.’s Social Credit Party, began investigations to see whether saving Whistler was worthwhile. Satisfied that Whistler wasn’t a lost cause, accomplished and well-connected BC businessman Chester Johnson was put in charge of a restructured Whistler Land Company, with $21 million of provincial funds to kickstart the reboot.
Mr. Johnson’s determined leadership was just what the doctor ordered. He oversaw the reconstruction of the conference centre so that it better suited the resort’s needs, fought off calls to bring in a casino, while respecting the architectural sensibilities of the original Whistler Village design. By 1984 some normalcy was returning to the situation, and Whistler was once again set upon a successful bearing.
It’s hard to say what exactly would have happened had the BC government chosen not to intervene (a politically expedient decision at the time; recall the wide-ranging calls for austerity following the 2008 recession) is impossible to predict, but it was clear at the time, and perhaps even moreso in hindsight, that the decision would have a huge influence on Whistler’s future.
All that to say: those who think that provincial politics have no impact inside our cozy little Whistler bubble… you’re wrong. There are many more examples than the above story, but probably none so dramatic.
From bitumen pipelines, natural gas plants, and IPP hydro facilities, to tourism promotion, post-secondary education, healthcare funding, our rising deficit, arts & culture and more, there are many contentious issues at play in the upcoming election. Make sure to come out to Monday’s all-candidates meeting at the Whistler Public Library, where you’ll have a chance to ask pointed questions and get informed on the issues that matter most to you.
Then make sure you’re registered, and show up to vote on May 14th at the Whistler Conference Center, courtesy of Chester Johnson.
For more stories from Whistler’s past check the Whistler Museum’s blog!