WHALLEY’S CORNER: The area’s evolution, through the lens of businesses

PART TWO: Saying momentum is on their side, longtime Whalley businesses say they’re not going anywhere

Mike Nielsen

Mike Nielsen

EDITOR’S NOTE: In our special series Waking up Whalley’s Corner, we are sharing stories from the area around 108th Avenue and King George Boulevard. In the weeks ahead, we will delve into its struggles, its triumphs and what lies ahead.

WHALLEY — It was 1978 when Lutz Sprecher’s father opened up Whalley Optical Centre at 107th Avenue and King George Boulevard. One year later, he began working at the shop part time.

“Back then, this was downtown,” he said. “So we had four banks, stores, everything all around. Then everything started moving uptown.”

Sprecher left the business for a time to work for the competition but returned to the Whalley store when his father’s health began to deteriorate. He describes himself as an “old school” licensed optician.

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“We do things the way we’ve always done them,” he said. “We custom fit glasses, we take time to talk to customers to make sure we’re filling their needs the right way. We do repairs – a lot of places aren’t even doing repairs anymore. So it’s old-fashioned service that people seem to miss these days.”

whalley businesses

While Sprecher now calls Whalley home, he lived in Burnaby way back when, before there was Metrotown.

“I saw the changes that happened over the 10 years there, and I’m pretty much expecting the same thing here,” he said.

“It’ll spread,” he said about development, seeing as the King George corridor is slated for business and high rises.

According to Sprecher, Whalley’s well-publicized social issues were a bigger problem in the past than they are today.

He said the establishment of the Downtown Surrey BIA – then called the Whalley BIA – was a “turning point” in cleaning up the area.

Sprecher said the BIA’s bike patrols and many events have helped to bring people to the area and “up the profile” a bit.

“We still have the Whalley reputation from way in the past but I think that’s going away now…. The area is slowly moving upscale a little bit, I think.”

He said the social issues don’t hurt business, but the perception of the area can.

“Some people don’t feel safe, but there’s really no reason. We’ve got 84 police officers next door. I’ve got the safest parking in town, I figure,” he continued.

As for the future, Sprecher is staying put.

“We’re here for good. We’re not going anywhere.”

Second in command at the optical shop is Elfie Stumpf, one of the founding members of the DSBIA.

As chair of the BIA’s safety committee since it started 10 years ago, she’s more than familiar with the area’s challenges.

“It’s much better. It hasn’t disappeared, but it’s better,” Stumpf said, adding that in more recent years, police, the city, social services and businesses are working together to solve issues, which has meant better success.

But she said the issues Whalley faces are everywhere.

“You can go anywhere, you can go to Vancouver, and sometimes it’s worse there than down here. But we still have that stigma.”

REALITY VS. PERCEPTION

A short jaunt down the road from the optical shop is Sprite Multimedia Systems, at 108th Avenue and King George Boulevard. It, too, has a long history in the area.

Mike Nielsen worked for a computer company in the early ’80s and suggested that his boss consider opening up a location in Whalley.

“The downtown area in Whalley was growing leaps and bounds. He had his heart set on Kamloops, though. So I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this myself.'” In 1983, Nielsen opened up Sprite, specializing in Commodores, an eight-bit 64K computer introduced in 1982.

“It was the most sold single-model computer in the history of the computer. We were right in the thick of that back in the day.”

whalley businesses

The first store opened at 102nd Avenue, but three years later outgrew the space, and moved down King George to 108th Avenue.

But everything came to a stop in 1993, when Commodore went bankrupt.

“We were known as the Commodore store. We held on as long as we could,” he said.

The business got into projector and home theatre sales, as well as the PC-compatible side of the industry. Today, a big push is consumer-based notebooks and tablets. And the store still does a lot of service work.

In 2008, he sold the business to Express Computers and ran the store as a manager until moving on in 2013. But last April, he got word that Express was selling the store.

As of June 1, he is the owner of the shop again, and said he couldn’t be happier.

“I’m so passionate about the business,” he said. He’s busy calling some 7,000 clients to let them know he’s back in town.

“I’m reaching out to let them know Mike’s back,” he said. “It’s a handson approach here. We’ll remember your name when you come back in two weeks.”

Being in what he sees as the region’s future downtown excites Nielsen.

“Every time a developer gets a raw piece of land, builds a condo or a commercial building, that’s a win for the area. The future for downtown Surrey looks great.”

Nielsen said it’s no secret that Whalley gets a bad rap, but to him, the reality isn’t the same as the perception.

“We have 95 great days and a couple bad days. We have isolated incidents as we do through the whole Lower Mainland,” he said, adding things are better than they were a decade ago.

“Before, the mandate was to corral all the bad elements in Whalley,” he noted.

Now, as the area is cleaned up, people are being displaced into other areas.

“It’s spread out through the whole community. Is that good or bad?” he asked.

Regardless, the future for Whalley is bright in Nielsen’s eyes.

“It’s an area in transition. Certainly it has been since I first started the business here in ’83. A lot of people are so negative about this area, but really, I compare us to Yaletown,” he continued.

“If you were there before Expo (’86), you’d say, ‘What a horrible, disgusting place.’ But today it’s one of the most sought after places to live in Vancouver.

“Give us another 10 years and this neighbourhood is going to go through that turning point. It’s already happening today and I see momentum for the future.”

NEXT IN SERIES: We talk to the owner of Whalley’s iconic Round-Up Café.

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