By Lethbridge Herald on January 21, 2021.
Over the course of 2020, downtown businesses suffered like no other area in the city due to province-wide shutdowns from COVID-19, and a general lack of pedestrian and other traffic because of ongoing public health restrictions. The recent Avison Young commercial real estate report confirms these impacts, recording a jump from an 11 per cent vacancy rate in the downtown to a 15 per cent in just one year alone while other areas of the city only had a five per cent commercial vacancy rate overall. Several of those downtown businesses closed down, and will not re-open again.
Downtown BRZ chair and King of Trade owner Hunter Heggie says he knows most of those business owners personally.
”It’s devastating when we lose businesses,” he told The Herald in a recent interview. ”A lot of these businesses are husband and wife (owned) who have mortgaged their home, put their entire life savings on the line, to open up their dream, and it has been shattered this year. It’s heartbreaking, but we can’t just stand around and feel sorry for ourselves. We have to keep going. And in honour of them, we have to succeed.”
Heggie said while some businesses like fitness studios and gyms are still hurting as public health restrictions closed them down for a second time in December, many of the others have withstood the blows this year. It is his belief that many are now better positioned to come back stronger, leaner and meaner once restrictions ease later this year.
”My company has been through a lot this year, as everybody else has,” he explained. ”We had huge plans. Those all got derailed. But if I look at my company now, I feel stronger than I did a year ago even though we have been through a lot. Not financially stronger, but we really had to look at what we do and make cuts where we were weak. We are now strong having come through this, and we are ready to go. We are chomping at the bit to get going. I know there are a lot of businesses like that (in Lethbridge).”
Downtown BRZ executive director Tulene Steiestol couldn’t agree more.
”I think people are rarin’ to go because there are things they wanted to do in 2020 that they havenÕt been able to,” she stated.
”But again, I think people have been able to reassess and prioritize so when we get the green light, it’s almost like, ‘stay out of our way, we are ready to go.’ There is that pent-up energy, and almost that excitement, that has been kind of bubbling in anticipation, and what can we do next together?”
Steiestol said it’s almost like Lethbridge’s business community has been like a bear in hibernation this past year — a bear that is now starting to stir and getting ready to roar back to life. And with new infrastructure projects like the $900,000 Festival Square facelift about to get underway, and with things like the rehabilitation of 3 Avenue phase one almost complete, Steiestol said the sense of anticipation for a full re-opening is just going to ramp up downtown.
”I really do feel it is going to attract really great positive energy,” she confirmed, ”but also it is going to draw that movement of change potentially filling up the spaces that have become empty because of COVID.”
According to City of Lethbridge Urban Revitalization manager Andrew Malcolm, that sense of optimism is not in any way misplaced despite a difficult few months still ahead. He is still getting inquiries about potential downtown redevelopment of older properties, a few new businesses have continued to open, and two major downtown redevelopments are set for completion in 2021.
”We have a great deal of (revitalization) programs already in place,” he added. ”There are projects that are on the books which started and will progress significantly over 2021. There is lots of public and private investment still occurring in the downtown, which is why I am still optimistic.”
While there is no sugarcoating it has been a tough year in the downtown business community, Malcolm is also excited about projects like Festival Square, the 3rd Avenue upgrades, and other downtown beautification work set to be completed this summer which can only enhance what can be offered downtown once the current health restrictions ease and public gatherings can be held once more.
”Just through our events (being stopped), we have over 60,000 people a year who are not coming to the downtown, and many of those events are held in Galt Gardens,” he stated. ”With events completely stopping, we don’t have people coming, we don’t have live music, we don’t have shopping, and eating during or before those events. We have very little of that positive activity in the park, which tends to push away some of the negatives and behaviours we don’t want to see.”
Malcolm is also hopeful with long awaited permanent supportive housing facilities poised to set up shop in Lethbridge this year, it will have a positive impact on the ongoing social problems within the downtown core.
”Until some of these homeless individuals have a place to call home, we are really going to see a continuous dog chasing its tail on many of these issues,” he said. ”We need to get them the support they need and off the street.”
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