As restaurants, pubs and personal services businesses start to open up and the Town prepares to begin summer infrastructure projects, downtown merchants are concerned about potential disruptions to their already struggling businesses.
During a downtown merchants roundtable discussion hosted via Zoom by the Smithers District Chamber of Commerce May 21, two topics were front and centre, expansion of restaurant patios and the Town’s Main Street landscaping revitalization project.
At a special meeting May 13, Town Council passed a bylaw amendment that allows the deputy mayor and CAO to expedite approvals of applications for use of public space for restaurant patios (and for other businesses) to help restaurateurs deal with reduced capacity and physical distancing regulations.
It is still unclear what form outdoor patios will take, but sidewalks, parking spaces and parking lots were all on the table for discussion, as was closing Main Street in whole or in part to vehicle traffic one day or perhaps even several days per week.
While the informal Downtown Merchants Association (DMA) has issued a statement it does not want to hinder any business, some retailers expressed concern that obstructing sidewalks, reducing parking spaces and/or closing the street, could discourage residents from visiting their stores.
Others noted that the public has been very supportive of a shop local initiative and that something unique like pedestrian-only hours might actually attract more people to downtown.
A Chamber poll conducted during the meeting, indicated 31 per cent of those who voted were open to a one-day Main Street closure and 69 per cent would support multiple days. However, the meeting was not well-attended as it was during business hours and no option was given in the poll for no closures of Main Street.
Grant Harris, publisher of The Interior News, who unofficially heads up the DMA, was disappointed in the turnout, noting there is some urgency to working out the details of what the summer is going to look like. He suggested the poll result may not be reflective of the view of the business community as a whole.
Similarly, there was little consensus on the town going ahead with replacing landscaping features with some business owners advocating for putting it off another year and others believing it might actually enhance their prospects for the summer.
Smithers director of operations, Mark Allen, was unable to provide details of what merchants might expect with respect to possible closures due to the landscaping project because the Town has not received the contractor’s plan yet.
But Deputy Mayor Gladys Atrill, responding to a direct question of whether it could be put off, said yes, noting there are several options including staying the course, putting it off until next year or phasing it in over a couple or more years.
However, she noted it is already in the budget and was planned for this year so it would be ready for next year’s big celebration of the 100th anniversary of Smithers being incorporated as a village in 1921.
She said there are advantages to moving forward.
“The best dollar comes in doing it all at once, but we are cognizant of the challenges our businesses, including the downtown businesses face this year,” she said. “Council and staff recognize the value that our unique Main Street adds to Smithers and the adopted plan was subject to public input (though now that is a couple of years ago). We intend to do it well, so Main Street will remain one of the nicest in Northern BC.”
Another question on the Chamber poll asked whether respondents would be open to Main Street closures to a) support other businesses who need to utilize outdoor spaces and b) to support replacement of trees and landscaping features. On support for other businesses 77 per cent responded yes and 69 per cent supported the landscaping project. Again, the small sample size calls into question whether the result is representative of the business community as a whole.
Downtown business owners are understandably nervous about any kind of disruption to their operations, particularly since tourist numbers will be down considerably with international, national and even within-B.C. travel restrictions in place.
In response, the Chamber has launched an aggressive shop local campaign.
In an Interior News webpoll, 70 per cent of those who responded said the landscaping project would not deter them from shopping downtown while eight per cent said it might and 15 per cent said it would.
This poll is admittedly non-scientific, but suggests the public may be ready to tolerate a little bit of disruption to support the local economy.