Is Smithers closed for business?

Smithers’ business community was out in full force at the March 12 council meeting to encourage the town to be more open for commerce.

Smithers’ business community was out in full force at last week’s council meeting to encourage the town to be more open for commerce.

The turnout was in response to a Letter to the Editor in the March 13 edition of The Interior News, written by businessman Dennis Groves about what he sees as a lack of support from Town Council in encouraging new business and supporting established businesses.

“There was a large turnout of people with similar concerns,” Groves said.

“Really my concern is about increasing our tax base.

“My real desire is to see smaller-type businesses that employ five to 10 people where somebody puts up a building, bricks and mortar, and pays property taxes.

“Their employees all pay taxes and buy a house.

“It’s the spin-off — the town gets a couple hundred thousand worth of tax revenue.

Groves also brought up concerns about some of the town’s priorities, namely the new arena project, and said the Town needs to get its priorities straight.

“First thing should always be: what can we do to add some growth to our community, not so much on what we can do to make it a better place to live.”

In response, councillors mentioned some of the initiatives they are currently working on that may not garner that much attention but are still important in terms of stimulating economic development.

The leasehold subdivision of lands surrounding the Smithers Regional Airport, sanitary sewer main construction along Harvard Way and a business plan for the Fall Fair grounds were brought up as projects the Town is in the middle of that aim to bring in more of a business tax base.

“I was on last council and I think this council has continued to try to do things to improve the business atmosphere in this town,” Councillor Frank Wray said. w

With the abundance of mining and myriad other projects being proposed and worked on in the region, Groves said Smithers was in a unique position to take advantage of the economic benefits they present.

“It’s too little, too late,” he said.

“Terrace airport is already tied up with a lot of these outfits that are working up North, with properties and offerings.”

Also in Groves’ letter was the need to fill the retail gap that appeared after the closure of Zellers, and to a lesser extent, Fields.

The name Walmart was mentioned and the point quickly consumed most speaker’s time, some coming out in in favour of inviting a big box store to Smithers, some against.

Longtime Smithers resident Gail Cole said she has five grandchildren and is now the caretaker of her 82-year-old mother-in-law.

Seniors on a fixed income and young families, especially, she said, need more alternatives when shopping for clothing and other goods.

“We talk about it daily — where can we go shopping, and it’s a struggle for us,” Cole said.

“I know a lot of people that are low-income families and they struggle on a daily basis to clothe their children and it frustrates me to no end.”

Cole said she sees no reason why Smithers cannot have the beautiful boutique shops on Main St. and some lower-cost alternatives.

“Don’t get me wrong — I love Main St. and I shop on Main St. as much as possible but I have to be fiscally responsible as does my daughter with her family,” she said.

“I’m not necessarily saying that Walmart is the answer, I’m just saying that something needs to be done to encourage these businesses to come to Smithers.”

Mayor Taylor Bachrach said filling this gap is something the Bulkley Valley Economic Development Association has been focusing on.

“Our strategy around business attraction and retention is we fund an arms-length organization called the Bulkley Valley Economic Development Association and Allan [Stroet’s] job as economic development officer is to go out there and work with investors and talk about our community,” he said.

The lack of a replacement for Zellers and Fields has not been due to lack of trying,  Stroet said.

“With Zellers and Fields closing, these are the following companies I have spoken to or reached out to: Walmart, Target, Old Navy, Joe Fresh, Army & Navy, Please Mum, The Children’s Place and the Vanderhoof Department Store,” he said.

“All of them have said the market is too small to support a business, the space is not feasible, the space being the Zellers location.”

“The big box stores require a minimum of 40,000 square feet. That one is 25,000 square feet.”

Having a big box store to fill the retail gap is something Stroet, who is about to become a father, said he would be in favour of for personal and professional reasons.

“I would love to have those things come to town too because I look at them as a draw for other businesses.”

Bachrach admitted he was taken a bit off guard by the concerns raised in Groves’ letter.

“There’s a sense of real frustration that in some ways is a little surprising,” he said.

“The reason I say surprising is because council hasn’t necessarily heard the specific concerns about the direction we’re taking things in.”

Wray encouraged community members to talk to the councillors and mayor if they have any issues they feel are critical.

“The most important thing is that Mr. Groves has taken that first step,” Wray said.

“We need to hear the frustrations.

“We need to hear what the roadblocks are.”

Council approved a motion to bring this discussion forward to one of their upcoming Let’s Talk public forums.