While there’s no denying the recent revamp announcement of Chilliwack’s downtown core was a welcomed—albeit an overdue—one, it’s left several businesses in the area with uncertain futures.
“It was about three years ago when they announced development plans (for downtown),” said Marion Peters-Marks, who owns Marion’s Dressing Room. “That was the beginning of the end for me.”
After working for the school district for more than a decade, Peters-Marks says she decided to open the shop as a way to combat the activity decline associated with retirement. And although she admits she never foresaw herself as a retailer, she’s always been an admirer of vintage fashion, so the move made a good fit.
But after dressing the city’s ladies for nearly 25 years, business inside Marion’s Dressing Room has been declining steadily, with this past year being the clothing store’s worst.
“Public perception has been that it’s not business as usual … rumours can be a really bad thing, so the damage was already done,” explained Peters-Marks.
“But I was prepared for this day—this block was slated a long time ago,” continued the entrepreneur. “(And) the City did do its due diligence.”
“Council has been talking about this since 2005,” said Mayor Sharon Gaetz during a telephone interview.
“More recently, in 2011, we started seeing some of the plans come together. And a year ago, we started really marketing and promoting downtown.”
Then, through the combined efforts of the City of Chilliwack, the Chilliwack Economic Partners Corp. (CEPCO), and the development company Algra Bros., an impressive revitalization plan for 3.75 acres of prime, downtown Chilliwack real estate was revealed earlier this month.
“(The plan) really excites me to want to stay,” said Jason Ooms, who owns Goldsteam Craft Brewing Supplies, which is a few doors up the street from Marion’s. “I think it’s a positive thing for all the businesses (in the area).”
“We’re trying to do it right … (and) don’t anticipate that this move will leave anyone homeless,” said the mayor.
There are 15 residential tenants and nine businesses that are being either temporarily or permanently displaced by the redevelopment process: overall, Gaetz says eight of the tenants have verbal agreements for new residents, and six of the businesses have already made relocation arrangements.
“The City (also hired) a social development coordinator who will be working with the residential tenants to address any barriers to housing … (and) CEPCO is going to help the businesses search for new property where ever is possible,” added Gaetz.
But however you look at it, moving comes with a cost.
“For the ones that have to move, they have to spend more money on a new store, signage, whatever else they need, and that’s unfortunate,” said Ooms.
Imagine planning a large wedding on your own, “or working 80 to 100 hours a week, and even when you get home you’re still thinking about work and never have any down time. That’s what starting up is like, and we have to do it all over again, said Sam Khosa, who opened WeVape INC next to Goldsteam in February.
“We were doing better than expected, so this comes as a hit for sure,” said Khosa.
With only being open for less than six months , Khosa says WeVape had just gotten over the initial cost investment—time- and money-wise—of opening a brick and mortar business. Now do it all over again, “and any place we look at is minimum three-times the rent we pay here.
“We took that risk, though,” admits Khosa. When signing his lease in November 2017, Khosa was informed of the possible upcoming development, and written into the contract was a period of free tenancy to help alleviate the costs of moving shop.
“But they said it had been up in the air for the past 10 years or so, so we … thought what are the chances … and just took the risk of just doing it” and possibly having to move shortly after opening.
Although all the owners say they tried to find out ahead of the recent announcement, none were delivered a final answer until after the official announcement had been made.
“Even up until they announced it, I could phone the City, my own landlord, whoever, and nobody knew (what was going on),” said Ooms.
“Myself, other (business owners), everyone was asking, but nobody knew. Once they made the announcement official, I heard from my landlord shortly after: I have to be out at the end of October.”
However, Ooms admits Goldsteam is a bit different than neighbouring businesses because almost half of his customers hop on his website.
“My business is a bit more of a destination,” said the craft brew guru. “Customers tell me, ‘No matter where you move downtown, we’ll find you.’ So that’s not a problem.”
And with about 40 per cent of his current business online, Ooms says he knows he could run Goldsteam as a home-based business.
“I know if I shut down my store the online will go up. I was already making arrangements for local pick-ups. But just after I got my notice—like a few hours later—Dave Algra came in and said they wanted me to stay. So I might be here. I’m positioned either way, no matter what happens,” Ooms added.
“It’s a stroke of luck I found a place to go,” said Peters-Marks. Her husband owns both real estate and a property management company, and alerted her to retail space in one of his Mill Street buildings that had recently become vacant.
“There’s no way could I afford to set up anywhere else,” Peters-Marks said. “And there is some compensation for moving … (but) I’m still losing two to three months of business all together.
“(Yet) I’ve no choice but to reinvent (my business) and see this as an opportunity,” she continued. “Maybe I’ll be newly discovered by a group of new people. Mill Street can be a lot busier and has more foot traffic.”
Khosa and Ooms are also looking on the bright side of things.
“This was a definite learning experience, and now I know I have a viable business,” said Khosa. “And this (development) is good for the downtown core. I’m totally with that.”
As for Ooms, going online means he “could spend more time at home with my family while still running a business that will (generate) enough income.
“(Besides) I’m not going to pay a lot of money for a space, especially downtown, until I see proven results. Until I see the environment where I’m doing business has improved (and has) more foot traffic coming in,” added Ooms.
So while the plans for downtown are tentative at best, there are plans, says Gaetz, and once ownership of the block is in the hands of the Algra Bros., Chilliwack can expect to see an increase of both business and residential spaces in the area.
“What we’ve learned from economists is we need to build a neighbourhood downtown to support the businesses,” the mayor said. “We want it to be a vibrant community with lots of hustle and bustle in that area.
“Business is important to us … we don’t want to lose business in that area and (Algra’s) already secured potential tenants for the area (as well as they plan to) replace the current (residential) units that we have with (up to) 120 dwellings like townhouses and condos.
With every square inch of downtown valued, continued Mayor Gaetz, “downtown is overwhelmingly the heart of the community, (but) a growing city needs to change along with the times, and that’s what Chilliwack is doing.”