KAMLOOPS - It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Monday at the corner of Victoria St. and 4 Avenue. The sidewalks are largely empty of people though the parking spots are all full. It’s grey and cloudy, the lights of Fashion 5 await shoppers, but there’s not much going on.
There’s been too much of that lately for Shawn Haley, owner of Erwin’s Bakery. The business was a fixture in downtown for a generation, though Haley has only owned it for the last eight years.
But it’s not there anymore.
“We feel there’s more opportunity in the new location,” he says. “Downtown has slowly been getting slower.”
He shut down the bakery two weeks ago and Erwin’s will reopen in the Mount Paul industrial park across the river. The foot traffic downtown just wasn’t enough, he says, and he thinks he’s found a more thriving market elsewhere.
He’s not alone. Several business owners say they’re in the midst of moving or are looking to relocate, some for different reasons like parking or an aggressive homeless population, but all under the same theme: The downtown has lost its mojo.
Coun. Denis Walsh, a downtown store owner himself, says he’s heard enough of it to be concerned. So far, it’s a trickle and a murmur, but it’s coming from large ‘anchor’ stores to mom and pop shops and cafes to retail.
For Lease signs speckle downtown storefronts away from the core along Victoria Street. The Kamloops Daily News building on Seymour St. and 4 Ave. slowly attracts graffiti and filth and looks very much like the abandoned building it is.
A few blocks away, Stuart Wood school seems to punctuate the discussion since it closed last summer — one less reason to be downtown.
“We have to make some bold changes,” Walsh says. “Something other than the status quo needs to happen.”
Gay Pooler doesn’t see it quite the same way. She directs the organization tasked with growing the downtown from 1 Avenue to 10 Avenue and from Columbia Street to the Thompson River.
The Kamloops Central Business Improvement Association is funded by a levy on all commercial properties in the downtown and fees from 250 to 300 members, mostly businesses with skin in the game. Pooler says movement is expected, even welcomed.
“The businesses coming and going out of the downtown are a natural evolution of any business district,” she says.
New shops are moving into the core, most recently Cyclelogic, which opened the same week Erwin’s Bakery closed downtown.
True enough, but some businesses are pointing to the association itself and say its strategies are not doing enough to bring people downtown. When asked, some businesses contacted by iNFOnews complained of an ‘old guard’ within the association, criticized its focus on the downtown ‘core’ and inconsistent efforts to attract people.
Pooler bristled at the concerns and said the association has a high approval rate among members.
“You might need to expand your scope on who you’re talking to and go talk to some of the ones that are successful downtown businesses, not people that are leaving for whatever reason,” she says, when asked about the concerns.
She makes no apologies for the strategy of focussing on Victoria Street between 1 Avenue and 4 Avenue. She says the city needs a core to grow from a central area. That core will be a draw, and outlying businesses will benefit from the exposure.
“If you’re an outlying business and somebody is coming to the downtown, how do they get here? They drive right by you,” she says.
Getting people down
A good example might be Kamloops Blazers games which can draw crowds, although not actually in the ‘core.’ But the games, like big one-day events downtown, can have an opposite effect.
People not going to the game or to the event tend to avoid downtown as parking spots become scarce. When games, or the rare concert, at the arena ends, crowds evaporate. Pubs downtown are open after game, but there are virtually no other options.
The $90 million dollar performing arts centre proposed for the former Kamloops Daily News building might have brought people to the city, but instead the city has been left with an aging, empty structure at a prominent intersection for more than three years. Walsh says the city went forward on the arts centre without a plan B.
“We went for the homer, but I think what they identified in that process is a Sagebrush-like facility in the downtown core would revitalize,” he says. “For smaller events; plays, musical acts that are smaller draws.”
Some are also concerned with how people are drawn to the core, with either small efforts unlikely to entice people to the downtown, like buskers during the lunch hour, or massive single time efforts. Walsh suggests more consistent, mid-sized events to make coming downtown a habit, like moving Music in the Park from Riverside Park to somewhere downtown once a week.
Pooler believes the smaller efforts grow ambience, so people have a good experience once they do make it to the downtown. She agrees with Walsh that big, one off events aren’t the ideal situation, but says partner organizations define when things happen.
Other concerns are more specific, sustained, problematic and well beyond the assocation: parking and the homeless population.
Parking is the most common complaint from visitors to downtown. With the installation of meters using new technology has come a host of complaints, say some downtown business managers and owners, from the complexity of using the new machines to distances between them in some areas.
“People complain about parking all the time; they’re so fearful of getting a parking ticket,” Dianne Dupuis, manager of Fashion 5 at 418 Victoria St. “Older people in general have said they won’t come downtown because of their parking meters.”
Pooler and others attribute part of the problem to the customers themselves, looking for short walk to their target stores.
“The Kamloops psyche is that they want to park basically in front of the store they want to go to and lots of the time that can happen,” Pooler says.
Shannon Altrogge, who moved to Kamloops only three months ago, says the parking situation downtown is a reason for her and her husband not to come to downtown.
“It’s a little tricky, we didn’t understand at all and it did take us a couple weeks to understand,” she says. “We definitely go elsewhere just to not pay the fees. It’s just the hassle, some days you don’t want to deal with the hassle.”
Business owners say they’ve heard the same complaint from a large number of customers. And that issue, for Altrogge, is keeping her and her family from spending money downtown.
“Being new to the city we’re still trying to find all the ins and outs and all the places. We see places when we drive through and we think ‘Oh, there we’ll try,” she says. “But we don’t want to come down here because we don’t want to deal with the parking.”
Pooler says more education is likely needed for the public, but says it’s difficult to spread information to all corners of the city.
Meanwhile, some businesses are also concerned the city’s homeless population may be scaring customers away who feel unsafe coming into the city’s core. Dupuis says she’s had customers complain about being approached five times while walking along Victoria Street.
“I see what happens when tourists come to town and it’s not a good feeling for them,” she says. “With the riff raff, I’d like to see more policing, more control of that.”
Pooler says the business association is working with the city and police to manage the issue, but it isn’t going away.
“There’s always going to be panhandlers,” she says. “It’s a matter of managing it, you have to manage it the best you can.”
Not all doom and gloom
Not all shop owners and managers are so down on downtown. Mel Pidskalny of Pyramid clothing store at 338 Seymour St., which opened in October, says she's happy with the location and gets a substantial number of customers just passing by, but that may be strategy as well.
"You definitely have to advertise in the downtown core to bring people in," she says.
Mike O'Reilly, owner of Cafe Motivo at 229 Victoria St., says he hasn't seen much change in the downtown's core.
"Honestly I feel the vibrancy is very good, there really hasn’t been a change over the last couple years," he says.
O'Reilly, who is currently on the business association board and worked at Venture Kamloops, thinks the downtown is actually nearing a boom, with multiple, large development projects being proposed, bringing more residents to the downtown.
Royal Inland Hospital, while just outside the city’s downtown area, is growing, with one recent expansion finished and another one making it’s way through government approvals.
"I personally feel, we’re on the cusp, within six months, of a lot of very very good, big projects coming downtown," he says. "I feel once one card falls, the rest are going to fall."
To contact a reporter for this story, email Brendan Kergin or call 250-819-6089 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.
We welcome your comments and opinions on our stories but play nice. We won't censor or delete comments unless they contain off-topic statements or links, unnecessary vulgarity, false facts, spam or obviously fake profiles. If you have any concerns about what you see in comments, email the editor in the link above.