The old Dairy Queen building that has been empty since the 1990s is now in the hands of Northern Savings Credit Union. Matthew Allen / The Northern View

Part 3: Death of Retail — What are we doing about it?

Part Three of a series investigating the shrinking retail sector on the North Coast of B.C.

On a grey, rainy Friday in late August, Third Avenue was booming with life once again.

The city had closed down the street to traffic and Rupertites were invited to participate in a pop-up fair, which was well attended despite soggy conditions.

The mood was light as attendees strolled from booth to booth, stopping briefly to talk to vendors about their services and purchase their products. The fair featured delicious street food, a street-yoga session, a First Nations dance performance by the Nisga’a Dance Group, as well as fantasy sword-play and archery.

In many ways, the fair was a throwback to the street’s abundant past, but it also symbolized its present challenges and growing desire in the community to rebuild it for the future.

“What we’ve heard across the board is that people feel we don’t have a dynamic downtown, downtown feels dead it feels like a ghost town” said Ceilidh Marlow, project coordinator with Redesign Rupert. “So that’s something we really wanted to address.”

Addressing the future

Marlow – in partnership with the North Coast Innovation Lab and the City of Prince Rupert – had organized the fair to bring the community to the city’s downtown core and to gather feedback for what they want it to be in the future.

“We really feel it’s important to number one, address what they want, and number two, I think it’s pretty self-evident when you drive down Third Ave, it’s not full of shops like it used to be, so we’re just working toward getting things going again here,” she said.

The question of how to revitalize Prince Rupert’s downtown is one that has been seriously considered by Marlow and others in the city who have been tasked with finding long-term solutions.

In February 2016, Redesign Rupert was launched with the purpose of engaging the community to help figure out what a transition to the future will look like. Over 18 months, the community was surveyed asking “What makes Prince Rupert a great place to live?” and “What changes would you like to see in Prince Rupert in the future?”

Based on the responses to those questions, three areas were identified as having the potential to improve the quality of life in Prince Rupert: downtown revitalization; waterfront development and access; and improved access to human capital, skills upgrading and professional development.

At the pop-up fair, Redesign Rupert launched the second part of this process by asking specifically what people wanted to see on Third Avenue.

The top two responses to that question were parks, gathering spaces and retail.

Ideas to revitalize

Part of the challenge with creating an atmosphere and environment where people want to be is difficult. Dozens of abandoned buildings discourage pedestrians, which in turn discourages businesses from setting up, creating a vicious cycle.

“How do we bring that same kind of feel so that people want to locate their business on Third Avenue because they know that’s where people want to walk around?” Marlow asked.

The city has been able to accomplish this in the Cow Bay area, which has developed into an attractive pocket of stores offering unique shopping experiences. There are bylaws governing the colours of storefronts in Cow Bay to create a specific aesthetic quality.

While the idea of exporting a ‘Cow Bay’ atmosphere to other parts of the city is good in theory, it could be difficult to implement in practice.

The downtown core of Third Avenue stretches from McBride Street to Ninth Street, a distance that is approximately 1.4 kilometres long. The businesses that do exist on Third Avenue are spread out and it can be hard to generate this atmosphere as a result.

A potential solution to address this is ‘clustering’ specific types of business services in zones to create a unique identity or feel to certain areas of the downtown.

Marlow said that rezoning to create a retail-focused area on Third Avenue could help create a similar atmosphere to what exists in Cow Bay.

“That way, there is a sort of unique core that’s smaller than what we have now,” she said. “Which is where people can identify that there are coffee shops and retail stores and allowing for other opportunities downtown on Third Avenue.”

Businesses that continued to thrive

Another aspect of revitalization is acknowledging the businesses that have continued to find success downtown, and learn lessons from experience.

While retail has gotten smaller in Prince Rupert, there are still entrepreneurs who survived the city’s economic downtown and found ways to thrive. Despite the difficult times, the individuals who own and operate these businesses are proud of their successes and are excited for what the future holds.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, I think we have a remarkable opportunity to be part and parcel and involved in the rebuilding of the downtown and of the business core,” said Rick McChesney, who is a co-owner of Cook’s Jewellers.

McChesney was raised in the jewelry business and saw first-hand the effect that departing industry had on his particular niche. He said maintaining business was a matter of being smart and adjusting to what the market could support.

Instead of carrying six luxury brands of watches, Cook’s Jewellers only carried one. The owners of the store also decided to invest in technology that would allow them to provide better service to their customers. Ultimately though, McChesney said that people were integral to the store’s success.

“It comes down to the human resources that help create customer loyalty,” he said. “And I think we’ve been really fortunate with the people we’ve had to work with.”

Harnessing the power of online

Other businesses have found ways to adapt to the competition that comes from online, and have thrived because of it.

“You just keep changing with the times, you have to,” said Sanjiv Sharma, who owns and runs Eddie’s News with his brother Ranjiv. “I don’t want to keep looking back and being worried about how things were, you have to think about how things are and how they will be in the future.”

Eddie’s News has been in Sharma’s family since his father Birj purchased it in 1985. Perhaps no industry has felt the effects of online shopping more than print retail, but Sharma said being able generate ideas through networking and the internet has been critical to their continued success.

For example, the store has used an online point of sale system that accumulates data on which titles are selling the best. Using this information, Sharma said he can make sure he always has popular books in stock when customers come asking.

“Of course, there are books that will do uniquely well in Prince Rupert,” he said. “But the list gives us a baseline to go off of.”

Sharma said he also tries to provide unique items in the store that can’t be found online, such as British chocolates or ice cream. He said with so much competition online, the only way to ahead is to embrace it and diversify.

“Even if things are going well, you also have to look for the next thing,” he said. “You can’t sit back and hope that everything will stay the same.”

Sheri Pringle, who owned and operated Oceanside Sports on Third Avenue for eight years, admitted that she was not quite as quick to embrace online as a way to build or identify her market.

“That’s on me, but I would say someone would really need to push that online side,” she said. “I’ve fought it, it’s not going away.”

Investing in Retention

The most consistently cited challenge to building and maintaining a successful retail business in Prince Rupert is holding onto staff when there are other entry level options that can offer considerably more money.

“People have choices now for where they work so you need to make sure that people can enjoy what they are doing and have fun and feel appreciated,” said Rob Eby, who has owned and operated MacKenzie Furniture on First Avenue since the early 90s.

Retention is a challenge, but Eby said his ability to retain long-term staff came as an unintended consequence of a major investment decision made in 2016.

Inspired by Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain’s Hays 2.0 vision, Eby said he decided to give his store a major upgrade and rebrand. While the resulting remodel helped to build the curb appeal of MacKenzie Furniture — which took on the franchise name Ashley Furniture — he said it also had the effect of making it a more appealing place for people to work.

“We don’t have to advertise as much because people will come in and drop off resumes,” he said, adding that investing in a staff room with a stove, fridge and TV (equipped with Netflix) makes his staff feel at home when they work.

Eby’s solution does not work for everyone, some store owners don’t have the capital to invest in major remodelling and large staff rooms. However, increased competition for labour does mean that business owners have to adjust.

Marlow said that assistance for hiring and generating a quality workforce for retail businesses is something Redesign Rupert is considering carefully.

“There’s no silver bullet because there’s lots of different aspects to this problem,” she said. “We’re trying to think of ways to access new workers, but there are still no clear answers.”

A new wave of entrepreneurs

Despite the challenges of the past 18 years, there is an undeniable optimism that the future is bright in Prince Rupert both for the city and its retail sector.

Business owners who found ways to weather the economic storm feel that as industry continues to grow, so too will the economic base necessary to support shops, stores and services in the city’s downtown.

“I don’t believe it will ever be exactly what it was before, but I think it’s going to be a really exciting place to be in business in the future,” McChesney said. “And it’s a great place to be now.”

However, while the old guard has found a way to survive, there is recognition that for the sector to thrive, a new generation of business owners has to be developed to carry the torch forward.

“We’re not just trying to recruit people to come up here and find jobs,” Marlow said. “We’re trying to recruit people to come up here and invest and start businesses, and we’re trying to relay this idea that it is a great place to start a business.”

Developing this attitude is tricky. The life of an entrepreneur is difficult, and even if an individual plans, works hard, is adaptable and is prepared for uncertain outcomes, their business may still fail.

Marlow said Redesign has considered making presentations to students in high school to make the idea of entrepreneurship real for students. Another is canvassing the community to see what specific services they would like to see downtown and then making sure people know that those opportunities are available.

“We’re trying to activate the local population by showing that this can be done, you can start a business, you can be successful, you don’t have to wait around for someone to hire you,” she said.

Ultimately, growth in Prince Rupert’s downtown will be an organic process. There is no single, quick answer that will achieve success overnight, but the important problems have been identified and the way forward is much clearer now that it was in the past.

“We can’t force people to start businesses on Third Avenue, all we can do is make it an inviting place so that it’s much more vibrant and much more aesthetically pleasing,” Marlow said. “A place where people want to spend time and we hope that in turn will incentivise people to start business on Third Avenue and bring some retail and other services back to the area.”

Part 1: Death of Retail in Prince Rupert

Part 2: Online shopping, taxes and labour pressure on Prince Rupert’s retail

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