How do you survive in a commercial black hole?

Stand in front of The Cabin at the corner of First Street East and Orton Avenue some day and look west towards Mackenzie. There, passing to and fro just 100 metres away, you’ll see all the customers you could possibly want. There’s just one problem: very, very few of them ever stroll east past the Regent. So what’s a merchant to do? David F. Rooney photo
David F. Rooney

Stand in front of The Cabin at the corner of First Street East and Orton Avenue some day and look west towards Mackenzie. There, passing to and fro just 100 metres away, you’ll see all the customers you could possibly want.

There’s just one problem: very, very few of them ever stroll east past the Regent. So what’s a merchant to do?

The men and women who own the handful of business located on that block past the Regent recently began considering that very question. They have to. They’re located in an area that is virtually a commercial black hole and they’ve had no help from the City or, in one case the building owner, when it has come to trying to promote their wares.

The owners of The Cabin, Re Psyched, Eco-Cents, Spice O’Life Emporium and Sears all got together at The Cabin last week to talk about their problems, vent their grievances and talk about possible solutions.

“We need get people down here,” said Troy Mayhew of The Cabin. “I’ve seen people walk down from Mackenzie to the corner here, look across the street then turn around and walk away. They won’t even cross the street to see what’s here.”

And that’s too bad. Each of the these small businesses is unique and has something to offer. Looking for erotica? Spice o’ Life is the only place between Golden and Vernon you’ll find anything adventurous. At The Cabin you can have a drink, bowl a few frames and pick up some cool threads. At Re Psyched you can find some great deals on consignment sports equipment. Eco-Cents offer discounts on new clothes and other items… and Sears? Well, who in Revelstoke hasn’t been in Sears? These small businesses are soon to be joined Revelstoke Florists. Guess what they offer!

A huge part of the problem is that much of their block looks like a wasteland. Most of the trees that once lined the sidewalk were pulled out quite a while ago and never replaced. The windowless, featureless building that houses Sears is just plain ugly. With a long blank wall on Orton and an industrial-looking exterior better suited to a garage or tire repair centre on Victoria, this structure just doesn’t invite anyone to come and spend money or browse.

Sears owner Jamie McCabe says he’d like to purchase the building — the current owner wants $1.4 million — but the banks won’t lend him the

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Devitt (left) talks with Jamie McCabe and Darren Carey, owners of the Sears outlet located at the corner of Victoria Road and Orton Avenue on Friday. Merchants along First Street East block south of the Regent sometimes feel as though they are in a commercial black hole. Just to make matters worse many think no one really cares or is even willing to listen to their concerns. David F. Rooney photo

money unless he can somehow bring in new tenants. But who’d want to set up shop in something that looks as ill-suited for retail business as that?

“It’s a real Catch-22,” he said. “If I can find some investors who’d work with me, we could do a lot with the building. I’d like to give it big windows and a brick and hardy fire exterior but I need investors who’ll work with me to buy the building and renovate it.”

Then there’s The Cabin’s rounded rock facade which has not been updated since the 1960s or early ’70s. Not only does that look rather cheesy, there’s the oh-so-uninviting broken cement where the fuel tank was dug up — it was, once upon a time, a gas station — and very poorly re-surfaced.

Mayhew would dearly love to give it a new facade, but the City has turned down his sketches without explanation or even helpful and constructive comment or criticism. He’d also like to put in a patio but that same piece of broken pavement is, it is claimed, the equivalent of four parking stalls. Sure he can build a patio but first he has to pay $20,000 per stall to the City. The fact that the space is not used for parking is irrelevant.

Enterprising businesswoman Dinah Collette says it can be "challenging" to get people to even cross Orton Avenue to check out stores on her block. David F. Rooney photo

Dinah Collette would appreciate some trees along Orton — anything, really, that relieves the dreary looking streetscape. But she has little faith in the City’s willingness to offer them helpful solutions.

“I get the feeling we’re on our own,” she said. “I think if we banded together and had a street sale, got Team Gloria to handle the eats and did a few other things we might get people to come down here.”

McCabe thinks that’s a great idea and would love to bring in some motorcycle stunt riders to put on a show — perhaps in one of the parking lots across First from Re-Psyched and Eco-Cents whose owners have been told they can’t display any of their merchandise on the sidewalk — even though the more affluent shops on Mackenzie and First Street West do it as a matter of course, without interference from bylaw enforcement officers.

Gerry Chouinard said when he and his fiancee Elaine Gale put a rack of clothing out on the sidewalk in hopes of attracting the eye of the few

Elaine Gale of Eco-Cents has lots of clean and new low-budget items for sale. However, her attempts to showcase them on racks outside her store brought the wrath of City officials down on her. Now she wonders how she can attract people to the business she and Gerry Chouinard own. David F. Rooney photo

passersby who go by their little shop, Eco-Cents, they found the ploy worked. People began coming in to see what was on offer. So they kept putting clothing out, even though some of the passers by would manhandle the clothes and at least once spit on them. They had to stop, however, when a bylaw control officer ordered them to take them down because he allegedly had some complaints about it.

Rayni Mostiuk of Re Psyched was simply told to move her sandwich board right to the edge of the sidewalk, which she says makes it a hindrance for vehicles that want to park, and was told to move a sports equipment display.

In both instances, the shopkeepers simply did as they were told. They didn’t to cause any waves with municipal bureaucrats, no matter how unjust their orders may have seemed, for fear of future problems with those same officials.

Rayni Mostiuk of Re-Psyched Sports Consignment talks with Chamber Executive Director John Devitt about some of her problems. She's looking for a break but feels no one cares about her need to to something to attract business south of the Regent. David F. Rooney photo

Chamber President Don Teuton and Executive Director John Devitt find the situation both dismaying and symptomatic of a municipal Council and government that appears to be anti-business.

“This City Council and City government do not support business,” Teuton says and he wonders what it will take to revolutionize the relationship between the business community and City Hall. “Something has to change.”

The problems these very small and patently struggling businesses are having seem unjust and unfair to him, but then he points to the problems Benoit Doucet is having getting the City to endorse his application for a wine bar.

“Some people don’t seem to want change,” he said. “But they’ll get it whether they want it or not. The question is: what kind of change will it be?”

Devitt says the net effect of the deteriorating relationship between the businesses that provide the bulk of Revelstoke’s steady employment and its

Chamber of Commerce President Don Teuton (left) and Executive Director John Devitt (center) talk to Troy Mayhew, owner of The Cabin, about his rebuffed attempts to get permission to put an attractive new facade on his business. David F. Rooney photo

relative prosperity will be a growing awareness that this city is anti-business. That will dampen the enthusiasm of investors and in the long run could even cause some contraction in the existing business community.

“You have to wonder who would benefit from that,” Teuton says.

Then, of course, there is the entire can of worms that some call business taxes. Small business in this town struggles beneath a heavy tax burden. Tax bill of $25,000, $35,000, $50,000 and more are not uncommon. Ask someone like Rita Stacey why she wrapped up a 40-plus-year-old family business and left for the greener pastures of Alberta. She’ll tell you in no uncertain terms that the heavy tax load here played a major role in her decision. It was by no means her only consideration but it was certainly the gorilla in the corner when she was thinking about what to do.

And what can or should these people do. With the exception of McCabe none of them struck me as particularly aggressive people. If anything they’ll simply — with nary a peep — obey the most Canadian characteristic of all: knuckle under to authority.

Yet there are outlets and avenues for change that they can, if they choose, explore. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the City have separate groups that are seeking to influence the decision-making process. the Chamber has a its own Downtown Business Committee which looks at ways to better promote the downtown core.

And then there is the City’s own Downtown Community Group which is to hold its own first meeting on Thursday afternoon from 3 until 4:30 pm at the Community Centre. Like the other neighbourhood community groups that have been established by the City it will provide a pipeline for constructive criticism to Council. At least that’s the plan. Whether Council will follow any of the advice it receives is a different question all together.