From pretzels to lip balm: How Kimberley has moved away from its Bavarian brand

At the centre of Kimberley, B.C., in a pedestrian-only area known as the Platzl, sits the world’s tallest free-standing cuckoo clock.

It’s 22 feet high, with Kimberley’s name at the bottom. If you put a loonie in, an animatronic version of the town mascot, Happy Hans, emerges from the clock and yodels. 

The clock, an element of the Bavarian theme incorporated all across Kimberley, has been the centrepiece of the town’s brand for 40 years — even if the town itself has never had strong immigrant ties to Germany or Austria.

“It was the era where people were doing things like the world’s largest sausage and the world’s largest blue ox,” said Matt Thompson, owner of Kimberley’s Story & Co., which led the community through a rebranding exercise a decade ago. 

Kimberley’s town centre was designed to have a Bavarian feel, complete with the world’s largest standing cuckoo clock. (Justin McElroy/CBC News)

“And they said, if we can do something like that, let’s develop the world’s largest cuckoo clock and see if people want to come and take a look.”

People did want to take a look. As Kimberley developed a tourism industry to supplement mining in the ’70s and ’80s, the town’s accordion festivals and Bavarian-inspired architecture and events attracted visitors who otherwise wouldn’t have known about the small community off the main highway.  

But times change. 

‘A Good Place to Be’

While the Bavarian theme attracted visitors to Kimberley, it didn’t necessarily attract new residents: in the ’80s and ’90s, the town’s population dipped along with the decline and eventual closure of the Sullivan Mine. 

As the town became better known for recreation opportunities in the 21st century, more young families started to move in — and what defined Kimberley began to evolve.

“The community was starting to feel maybe that the Bavarian theme was not authentic,” said Scott Sommerville, Kimberley’s Chief Administrative Officer.

“It really put Kimberley on the map for tourism. Over time, however, it started to get a bit tired.”

While most of the buildings in the Platzl are still likely to have distinct architecture, their offerings are much more diverse than they were several decades ago. (Justin McElroy/CBC News)

The town worked with Thompson’s company on a rebranding exercise, settling on the slogan “A Good Place To Be,” emphasizing the lifestyle opportunities in town and less of the older branding and architecture.

“Kimberly was an interesting community because they had been very intentional about the way that it showed up,” said Thompson. 

“But the community was interested in celebrating what it was, and celebrating what it aspired to be.” 

Mix of new and old 

Today, the Platzl is still a place with Happy Hans and buildings that look like shops in a German fairy tale. 

But the former bakery with a giant pretzel logo on its facade is boarded up, while beside it is a bright yellow building with the words “wellness” and “mason bees” on the windows.

“I don’t know how important it is to move away from things necessarily as it is important to embrace new ideas,” said Randy Moody, co-owner of Moody Bee, who moved to Kimberley 12 years ago. 
 
“I don’t think it would have worked when we first moved here. But the town has kind of evolved … we’re one of many who are contributing to the revitalization of downtown and our business just fits.

“Believe it or not, people just love to come and try the flavors of lip balm and the different products that we make.”

One of the last stores in the Platzl with a full Bavarian feel is the Yodelling Woodcarver Shop, home to linens, porcelain and carvings from across Europe. 

The Yodelling Woodcarver Shop continues to sell authentic items from around Europe, but is one of the last stores in the Platzl to fully embrace the area’s original Bavarian theme. (Justin McElroy/CBC News)

Erika Unterberger ran it with her husband, Adi, for decades until he passed away last year. She says that she still has plenty of loyal customers, but rest of the Kimberley gift shops that contributed to the town’s theme in the 70s and 80s have either passed on or sold their businesses.

But when people put a loonie in Happy Hans, she hears her husband once again — as Adi’s voice does the yodelling for Hans. 

“For me, it’s fine, because I understand,” she said. 

“You have to put yourself in other people’s shoes, right?”

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