British Columbia

How Kimberley's unique car-free centre has anchored its tourism for almost 50 years

The Platzl was developed in 1973 when Kimberley rebranded as the Bavaria of the Rockies, and the pedestrian zone's intersecting cobblestone lanes still twist through the city centre today.

Pedestrian-only area called the Platzl, developed in 1973, has become vital focal point for city’s economy

The Platzl remains one of the few pedestrian-only downtown business areas in Western Canada. ((Brendan Coulter/CBC))

By the late 1960s, residents of Kimberley, B.C. knew they had to diversify the local economy, which was centred around mining at the time.

But when you're a small town that's not on the main highway, you need to create reasons to get people to visit. 

"We needed a reason for people to want to go the alternate route on the highway," said Marie Stang, who runs the Kimberley Heritage Museum. 

"Being just sort of an ordinary, nice little town wasn't enough."

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Today, the town is known for its ski hill, mountain biking and recreation opportunities. But at its heart is the town square, which residents voted in creating more than 50 years ago, voting to change busy Spokane Street into a pedestrian-only shopping area.

It was part of branding the community as the Bavarian city of the Rockies — branding which today is mostly gone.

But the shopping area — known as the Platzl, with intersecting cobblestone lanes that twist through the city's downtown area — is still a key part of what makes the town welcoming, and one of the distinctive features that helped Kimberley win best small town in B.C. in a bracket-style competition held by CBC over the past few weeks.

"The walkability of the Platzl, it encourages our visitors to mingle with the residents," said Kimberley Mayor Don McCormick. 

Marie Stang, administrator of the Kimberley Heritage Museum, stands beside a handmade model replica of the Platzl on display at the museum. ((Brendan Coulter/CBC))

Uncommon tourism strategy

The Platzl — the word for "plaza" or "town square" in the Bavarian dialect of German — remains Kimberley's largest business centre, featuring cheese, chocolate, and candy shops alongside restaurants and a ski and bike store, some of which still feature the Bavarian architecture and decor.

While creating pedestrian-only zones was something that happened in some larger cities in the 1970s, it was rarely initiated in smaller towns, according to David Monteyne, associate professor of architecture at the University of Calgary.

"[Kimberley] might be unique in the sense of the scale of the town," he said. 

The town's efforts to diversify became much more pressing when the Sullivan Mine, once the world's largest lead-zinc mine and the city's largest employer, was decommissioned in 2001.

Two-thousand workers were laid off from the mine and the city took a $2 million hit in annual tax revenue, according to documents from Natural Resources Canada. 

It left the city's business community devastated, said Matt Lamb, president of the Kimberley Chamber of Commerce. 

"You would have seen a lot of vacancies [in the Platzl]," he said. 

Tourism takes off

But the community's foresight to diversify paid off, with tourist arrivals almost doubling over a decade, from 68,000 in 2011 to 128,000 in 2021. 

"We've seen a complete turnaround," said Lamb. "The entire tone of the town has changed." 

While the city does not track revenue generated by the Platzl alone, tourism generated $38.2 million in 2021, much of which was generated by businesses in the pedestrian-friendly centre. 

Sandy James, a city planner and the founder of Walk Metro Vancouver, said that ski hills like Kimberley and Whistler that adopted car-free centres have shown the economic benefits of building a commercial centre centred around walking. 

"What we've learned is that if you make a street for people to walk, people walk on it," she said. 

"We look at the 20th century, and it was about the automobile city ... but we need to stay physically fit, and attached to communities."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brendan Coulter is CBC British Columbia's Kootenay pop-up bureau reporter. He has also worked for CBC Kamloops. Reach him at brendan.coulter@cbc.ca.

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