On a grey January morning, Sheri Pringle sits at a skate sharpening station in the back of her store, Oceanside Sports.
Sparks fly off the sharpening wheel as she applies pressure to the children’s skates that were dropped off earlier in the morning by a father who will be returning later in the afternoon to pick up the skates for his children.
The store is mostly empty, except for the occasional customer who comes in either to drop off a set of skates for sharpening or browse through the array of clothing, shoes and accessories that have recently gone on sale since she put ‘going out of business’ signs on her windows.
“I’ve had a lot of people come in here since I put up my closing signs and say that they’ve never been in here before,” she said. “That’s mind blowing to me that people haven’t even been in.”
As she continues to sharpen, Pringle says her decision to walk away from the business she has nurtured for eight years cannot be boiled down to a single reason. Nobody starts a business venture without some vision of success and a plan to get there.
Rather, Pringle’s decision was the result of a combination of factors that accumulated over the years: a below average Christmas season, general lack of customers and growth, a slow economy, problems with suppliers, desire for more life balance, other opportunities elsewhere in the city.
Ultimately, Pringle said she was done with the grind.
“It just came down to what can I do, what can I make good money at, make a living and still have time for myself and my family,” she said.
PART 1 – The Landscape
Population decline and the trickle down effect
An observer walking down through the Prince Rupert’s downtown would quickly notice that Pringle is not the only retail operator walking away from life as a business owner on Third Avenue.
What was once a hub of retail activity in the heyday of Prince Rupert’s pulp and canning industries has slowly declined to the point where there are as many vacant buildings as occupied ones along the street.
In many ways the history of that downtown stretch of Prince Rupert mirrors the recent history, and is a case study in what happens when big industry is no longer able to support a city. The closures of its two major industries in the early 2000s had a major ripple effect on every aspect of life.
The most noticeable effect was on the number of people who left Prince Rupert. The population of the city shrank from 17,414 people in 1996 to 12,220 people in 2016 according to data from Statistics Canada.
“They were really high paying union jobs and 3,000 of them were gone over night,” said Blair Mirau, a councillor for the City of Prince Rupert, as well as the chair of the small business advisory committee. “So not only is that income gone, but all the spin-off benefits, like tertiary businesses that were supplying the mill, also closed their doors.
“And as people left, there obviously wasn’t the cash in town.”
This drop in the city’s population and the resulting lack of revenue resulted in its retail sector being squeezed. Far West Sports, a locally owned sports retail store opened in 1972 and grew to peak gross revenues of $1.7 million in the late 90s.
“We had to carry extra cash in our till to cash cheques for people working in the fish plants because they would come off Friday night and the banks would be closed,” said Iain Cullen who owned and operated Far West Sports until it closed in 2016.
“Because they were such good customers we would make sure we had money in there saved so we could cash their cheque for them because they were buying stuff and they needed money.”
Cullen said after the mill closed, gross sales at Far West dropped between $700,000-$800,000 and continued dropping over the next five to seven years as economic activity in the city slowed.
And it wasn’t just the businesses in Prince Rupert that suffered. As families moved away, vital aspects of civic and community life also decreased. Pringle, who originally moved to Prince Rupert in 2000 to teach skating, said there was a noticeable decline in the number of young kids signing up for skating lessons.
“We call it the mill bubble in our world,” she said. “When you’re low on that age-population of kids.
“You’re not seeing as many kids in midget hockey now or higher-end figure skating.”
There was another impact that was less tangible, but perhaps the most meaningful.
“Our community’s self-esteem took a huge blow,” said John Farrell, manager at Community Futures in Prince Rupert. “We weren’t that busy little port town anymore and it affected every aspect of our community, which we had taken for granted.
“It’s taken us years as a community to build our self-esteem up again and be proud.”
Rebound and new challenges
On Oct. 31, 2007, the Port of Prince Rupert welcomed the COSCO Antwerp to its new Fairview Container Terminal. The container vessel unloaded more that 1,000 containers onto the dock, 600 of which were then transported by train to Chicago. It was the beginning of the port’s steady climb to one of the largest container terminals on the West Coast in terms of container volume.
The port’s resurgence was a boon for Prince Rupert, providing high-paying jobs and stability that made the city a viable option for families again. According to its 2017 economic impact study, the port also contributed $8.1 million dollars to the city in taxes (a figure that combines property taxes, payment in lieu of taxes and the BC Port Competitiveness Grant).
The port also established its Community Investment Fund in 2009 with the goal of providing support for projects in Prince Rupert that would have long term impacts. The fund contributed nearly $9 million in funding to help build trails and create the community spaces that are so vital to a vibrant city’s growth.
However, while positive, the rebound was not necessarily reflected as powerfully in the city’s retail sector, particularly the downtown streets of Second and Third Avenue where many buildings remain boarded up and vacant.
The retail sector has faced many unique challenges that have prevented it from being able to reap the economic benefits of the city’s growth. The population began to steady, but consumer habits had changed — and another challenge was thrown at the retail sector: online shopping.
Part II next week: An online world