By Brian Slemming
Sherway Gardens shopping centre, one of Toronto’s leading emporiums, announced recently that it was increasing its hours of business. The move follows the trend of longer opening hours by most Toronto malls. One of the motivators has been Walmart, which is open a staggering 112 hours a week. This is good news for determined shoppers, good news for employment seekers, good news for a variety of manufacturers or growers who keep these outlets stocked…..or is it?
Victory is almost always equalled by defeat. One of the losers is the traditional downtown retailer, where old main streets are home to an increasing number of empty store fronts.
Johnny Percolates, a sales rep with Century 21 All-Pro Realty in Cobourg, Ont., has business and retail listings in downtown Cobourg that he says are difficult to move.
“I am getting very little interest in any of the downtown properties I have listed. Retail interest is concentrated on the area on the north side of the town where a conglomeration of mega stores is opening up,” he says. Cobourg, situated 100 km east of Toronto, boasts a population of 18,000. Winners, Walmart, Home Depot, SportChek and Metro grocery stores have all been established in or near or the Northumberland Mall to serve customers from a wide surrounding area. Northumberland County has a population of over 75,000. Many of them flock to the north side of Cobourg to shop, but they ignore the downtown in large numbers, resulting in empty stores. “The fact is that businesses don’t want to set up in the downtown,” says Percolides.
Empty downtown stores are a universal problem. A quick check of any newspaper highlights the problems and its wide geographic reach.
Midland, Ont. has more than a dozen empty store fronts. There, five property owners are filling the empty stores temporarily with work by local artists and artisans.
In Port Alberni, B.C. two students unhappy with the empty downtown stores worked with local Realtor Chris Colclough of Re/Max Mid Island Realty to fill empty windows with individually designed posters.
In Kitchener, Ont. the Economic Development department is offering financial grants to permanent users of empty downtown properties. In Vancouver, Deb Nicol has developed a flourishing business by opening pop-up stores, which operate for only short periods of time. Pop-ups drive traffic through a location and help developers or agents to find permanent renters or buyers.
In the east end of Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, a local community group adopted the pop-up store process to deal with what was becoming an alarming state of emptiness. Federal census figures cite a population of more than 100,000 within five minutes of the Coxwell subway station.
Catherine Porter, a columnist for the Toronto Star and a member of the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) committed to improving the run-down area. In a Toronto Star article, Porter described one block of the Danforth where “every third store is vacant and has slumped empty for years.”
DECA began a pop-up shop program. Volunteers with the association started by negotiating with a property owner where there was space for two stores. DECA volunteers cleaned and painted the stores and two would-be entrepreneurs began their drive into the retail business last October. In August of this year, less than one year later, the property was home to a permanent store, with a five-year lease. What had been a dirty pair of empty windows in less than one year had been changed to an operating full-time business with clean windows holding a colourful display.
Nita Kang, a sales rep with Royal LePage Meadowtowne Realty based in Mississauga, Ont., owns a store with other partners on the Danforth. It had been empty for more than two months, so she persuaded her partners to try the pop-up route. The property was cleaned and decorated and suitable clients were found. Today the store has been leased on a long-term contract. Did the pop-up help?
“Yes, I think it did,” says Kang. “The redecoration and the fact that the windows were properly filled made it much easier to finalize the lease.”
Kang says, “The area has certainly improved…. I think that as long as the community association can keep the pop-ups going we will be greatly improving the community.”
DECA now has five pop-up stores operating and is actively looking for additional entrepreneurs.
There are conditions applied to applicants. They cannot be engaged in any enterprise that competes directly or unfairly with existing businesses. Successful applicants receive a six-month lease with a 30-day notice period. The participation fee is $165 per week to cover taxes and utilities. Pop-up operators pay the $165 to the landlord, plus 10 per cent of sales in excess of $7,500 per month. Landlords gain basic cleaning and renovation of what have been unused properties for a long time – some of them for years.
Foot traffic that now moves through these properties makes them easier for the owner or for agents to bring about more permanent contracts.
Back in Cobourg, can the idea of pop-up stores down the main street offer some respite? Sadly, no. Kevin Naraway, the town’s business development officer, says he does not see a solution in pop-ups.
“They make sense when we’re coming up to Christmas or such but we have a different situation. Our problem is that our properties are in a very bad state of repair so I’m not sure rental for a short term makes very much sense.”