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Boom times? The changing face of Vernon's main street

Lacey O'Neill sits in her newly store, Polished Mercantile.

Downtown Vernon is going through a revitalization. While 'for lease' signs still dot 30 Avenue, the city's main drag has had a spate of new businesses open their doors.

From higher-end clothing stores to new places to eat, Vernon's often overlooked main street has attracted a wealth of new businesses throughout 2021.

Lacey O'Neill opened her first retail store, Polished Mercantile, on 30 Avenue a few weeks ago.

"I knew if I was going to do this I needed to be downtown," O'Neill said. "I looked at other areas (but) I didn't want to be off the beaten track... I knew I wanted to be in the hub of people."

O'Neill's store is one of several new clothing stores to have opened there recently after she moved into where the store Terra Incognita Imports once was.

Mishelle LaBrash at the Vibe Boutique and Collective.
Mishelle LaBrash at the Vibe Boutique and Collective.

Mishelle LaBrash is another newbie to the tree-lined street and owns and operators both the Vibe Artisan Gallery and the Vibe Boutique and Collective.

She opened just weeks before the pandemic hit and was forced to close. The timing couldn't have been worst but she's now settled her two businesses into spaces on either side of the Vernon Towne Cinema.

LaBrash is passionate about bringing life back into the downtown.

"I think downtown Vernon has kind of been behind the times for a while and I think it's important to bring business back down here," she said.

Just across the street from LaBrash's store sits the Okanagan Skate Co. The store's owner, Bryce Wach, has had a rough time with crime and anti-social behaviour over the seven years he's run his business.

In December 2019, he publicly declared he was leaving main street, having been plagued by break-ins, robberies and criminal activity. He estimated he'd lost around $40,000 over five years due to replacing lost and stolen goods.

He moved his business back to 30 Avenue in February this year.

Standing in front of dozens of brightly coloured skateboard decks, Wach says he's happy to be back downtown.

"I think downtown is getting new life, there are younger people... (opening) new businesses," he said.

Bryce Wach moved his skate store back to main street.
Bryce Wach moved his skate store back to main street.

One of those young business people is Noah MacLeod.

He opened a communal art studio, gallery, and retail store on June 1. He jokingly called it, Local Losers.

MacLeod says he chose downtown because of the foot traffic and local business community.

"There's... a lot of like-minded entrepreneurs looking to build up the art scene," he said. "Vernon... was a little stagnant and people were unsure about opening businesses but I think now a lot of people are like 'screw it,' let's do it and get this town moving. I think that's pretty exciting."

Noah MacLeod opened Local Losers this summer.
Noah MacLeod opened Local Losers this summer.

It's all a far cry from the sentiment of many a few years ago.

In April 2018, local merchants vented their frustrations during a town hall meeting organized in part of the City of Vernon. The sentiment was unanimous: the impact of crime and anti-social behaviour was destroying the downtown and shop owners were scared, fed up and losing money. In 2019, a petition to the City from two downtown seniors' buildings said some of their residents were too scared to go outside.

READ MORE: Too scared to go outside: Downtown Vernon seniors' petition says situation 'out of control'

More public meetings were held and more reports were written up. The City built more public washrooms, employed more bylaw officers and launched other initiatives.

But things still weren't looking great. Renovations of the former Liquidation World building were finally completed but most units sat empty, failing to attract new tenants.

After 114 years of service, the Royal Bank of Canada closed its 30 Avenue and Highway 97 branch in May 2019. And the building is still up for sale, although the $3.7 million price tag is likely a factor.

Units still sit empty at the site of the former Liquidation World.
Units still sit empty at the site of the former Liquidation World.

While units at the former Liquidation World building are still empty – and offering 12 months free rent if you sign a long enough lease – things are starting to change.

After being forced to close by the pandemic, Heather Comazzetto moved her yoga studio to a unit at the former Liquidation World building.

"I actually did not want to come onto main street, as bad as that sounds... but now that we are here it is the best decision," Comazzetto said. "It's great to be in the heart of the city."

Comazzetto ran The Hot Room @Studio B for a decade on the outskirts of downtown Vernon, but when her lease expired during the pandemic shutdown, she started looking around.

She admits wasn't keen on relocating to main street. Its reputation combined with a perceived lack of parking made her very hesitant to open up on 30 Avenue.

"I just fell into that belief like lots of people do about how the downtown is, but once you're actually down here it's really great," she said.

And business is doing well.

"There's so much walk-by traffic, we get so many walk-ins here... we are right by the parkade," she said.

Joe Patel outside the Okanagan's first samosa bakery.
Joe Patel outside the Okanagan's first samosa bakery.

Just off 30 Avenue, Joe Patel has opened what he says is a first for the region. Dubbed "the Okanagan's first samosa bakery", Patel opened Samosa Joes in a tiny space on 33 Street two weeks ago.

He'd planned to open on Highway 97 but the deal fell through and he ended up downtown.

"There's a ton of traffic on the highway, that's why I wanted to go up there, but now I'm here (this) is actually a better move," Patel said. "There's a lot of foot traffic (downtown) that I'm noticing."

And shoppers seem to be noticing him. He sold 2,500 samosas in his first week of opening.

Across the road from Samosa Joes sits another new business, Desert Bloom Okanagan Ink Cosmetics, and around the corner, a textile workshop called Furhouse has just opened up.

Kin+Pod Chocolate just took up residency on main street, advertising ethically made bean-to-bar craft chocolate.

There's also a new place to eat, Korean Japanese restaurant OHKIM Sushi and Grill opened its doors in the summer.

Currently, in the renovation stage, Caken Me Crazy bakery is in the process of moving from its 27 Street location to 30 Avenue.

Main street gets yet another new business.
Main street gets yet another new business.

Adding to the list of pawnbrokers already on main street, Vernon's Finest Pawn and More has moved into the 3300 block of 30 Avenue, advertising antiques, collectables, jewellery and more.

While the few pawnbrokers that line main street aren't exactly the sign of an affluent community, back at O'Neill's store, things are quite different.

She describes Polished Mercantile's wares as "slightly higher-end" and "an eclectic blend of quality goods (and) clothing lines." Around 85 per cent of the goods are Canadian.

And the higher-end trend is seen elsewhere. Down the street, the recently opened Thirty-One and Main is an upmarket women's boutique.

Tanneke Oordt opened Thirty-One and Main in May after failing to find a suitable tenant for the building she owns – she refused to let it become a vape shop or tattoo parlour.

Her prices range from $40 to over $200.

"There's definitely a demand for good quality and people don't mind spending more but buying less," Oordt said.

The store is one of a handful of higher-end boutiques.

The newly named KALECO clothing store has dramatically upped its game selling sustainable clothing and jewelry since its new owner bought what was previously Shambhala Clothing.

"The more we get the better it is," said Oordt. "I don't see it as competition it only makes my store stronger, because then people come out, and they might not buy at my store but at least they came to downtown."

Downtown Vernon Association spokesperson Peter Kaz says the organization has had about 15 new members in the last couple of months.

The City of Vernon says it has approved 109 new business licence so far this year city-wide. In 2019 it approved 132.

And a new pawnbrokers.
And a new pawnbrokers.

While the vibe might be optimistic, it's still a tough market.

A June 2021 survey found that Canadians who responded were spending $178 per month shopping online, an increase of $69 compared to pre-pandemic. Statistics Canada reports that Canadians spent $84.4 billion online in 2020 up from $57.4 billion in 2018 and 82 per cent of the population did some form of online shopping.

Back at the Vibe Boutique and Collective, LaBrash says she hears from a lot of customers that say they purposely want to support brick-and-mortar businesses downtown. But business is still tough. She has a different business model than most and runs her store as a collaborative.

"If it were just me running these two stores it would be almost impossible to keep the doors open," she said.

Her stores sit on the 2900 block which was closed to vehicle traffic for some of the summer. She said it was good but could have been much better.

"There wasn't enough in this block to entice people to come. I think there should have been vendors and people from the farmers market," she said.

She'd love to see the farmers market move back downtown.

And there are still empty shop fronts along 30 Avenue.

"The problems are still there and there's definitely a homeless problem," Oordt says.

Wander down main street and it's not hard to spot. But while this may be the case, the street is changing, and changing quickly.

Some things remain the same though. For those working nine to five, accessing the stores on 30 Avenue is no easy feat during the week. Even the wealth of new businesses that have just opened all tend to close their doors at 5 p.m.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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