The Griff

On thin ice

Downtown

On thin ice

Small businesses in the Ice District struggle, while new development thrives


On July 13, 2015, the area in downtown Edmonton surrounding Rogers Place was officially named the “Ice District.” Now the development has claimed the city core with its promise to become the largest mixed entertainment and sports development in Canada.

Although a large number of the planned venues (including VIP movie theaters, luxury hotels, and residences) have yet to join Rogers Place, the construction and development of the Ice District have already had an effect on smaller businesses in the neighbourhood.

Shops like Earth’s General Store on 104 Street are finding it tricky to attract game-goers and concert fans who pass their stores on the way to Rogers Place.

“An owner of a bar once said that our store would get exposure by those people walking by,” explains Michael Kalmanovitch, owner of Earth’s General Store. “That is true, but the majority of those people are coming from some other part of the city, focused on their destination.”

Although unique spots like Earth’s General Store contribute to the local-artisan vibe downtown, they don’t offer products that would typically attract Rogers Place crowds.

“People don’t buy a bag of potatoes when they go to see a hockey game or Drake, so the people that come into the downtown core don’t drop into our grocery store,” Kalmanovitch says. “They do tend to frequent the bars, pubs, and eating establishments.”

If crowds heading to the arena bypass specialty shops like those on 104 Street, local owners might not be able to make enough sales to keep business going. Kalmanovitch made the decision at the beginning of January to publicly announce that, unless business picks up, his store’s downtown location will be shutting down.


THINICEONLINE2
Interior of Earth’s General Store.

“This was a drastic move by our store,” he says. “Many stores just close, but I wanted to let the larger community know that we will close unless business increases by a certain amount.”

A few downtown businesses have already made the move to close inner-city locations. On Jan. 2, local restaurant MRKT announced via Twitter their decision to sell, while local Edmonton chain Transcend Coffee shut down its Mercer Building café on Feb. 27.

“For two years, this team managed the lack of foot traffic and patrons with the hope that the opening of Rogers (Place) in 2016 would bring much-needed footfall and business to the area,” Poul Mark, owner of Transcend Coffee, explained in a blog post announcement that talked about the closing.

“In September 2016, the arena opened with much fanfare, and despite some early signs of increased business, a sustained increase in traffic and footfall did not transpire as expected.”

In the same blog post, Mark notes that, along with the lack of foot traffic, most crowds making their way to Oilers games or attending concerts prefer grabbing drinks or food instead of coffee.

Some of the nearby restaurants have seen a substantial increase in new visitors, but gains have been uneven. According to Paul Bellows, “It really is the business(es) that can afford to pay the higher rents right in the district who are getting the benefits.” Bellows is director of Yellow Pencil, a web design and development company located in downtown Edmonton.

Joey Bell Tower is one of several restaurants finding success due to its close proximity to the new arena. In August, the restaurant chain moved one of its locations from Jasper Avenue to 101 Street, directly across from the arena. According to an article by Alex Boyd in Edmonton’s Metro newspaper, the new restaurant’s “daytime business clientele is giving way to big evening crowds on event nights”.

Another lot of bars and food venues have opened near the Ice District, including The Alder Room on Jasper Avenue and a Pizzeria in the EPCOR building just next door. These restaurants attract foodies who want a high-class dining experience, whether or not they’re attending a show or game at Rogers Place.

As someone who uses the downtown space on the regular for both work and play, Bellows has noticed an equal amount of success and frustration for those who own businesses in the
Ice District.

“There are … a couple other areas just a block away (from the are na), or closer, where you see a lot of new businesses spring up, and some of those are really thriving, so there’s been sort of a split,” he says.

While the variety of food and drink options for Oilers fans, professionals, and students in the area seems to be growing, smaller businesses like those on 104 Street might find it difficult to survive amongst the new developments.

“I think the long haul will be good for downtown overall,” Bellows explains, “but I don’t think it will necessarily help small businesses, because they’re not right in that critical area where you get the spillover effect.”

“I have a lot of friends who have businesses on 104 Street, and I know initially there was a big promise with the Ice District, that it was going to help build that small business vibe. But it really hasn’t.”

With this being the arena’s first year, it’s difficult to make a solid prediction about how successful business will be in the future. It is evident, especially on nights when Rogers Place hosts its biggest events, that Edmonton’s core exudes a new kind of energy.

The week Garth Brooks sold out nine concerts, downtown was overflowing with activity. The Edmonton Sun reported, “according to Edmonton’s Downtown Business Association … (Brooks’) shows tripled clientele at some nearby venues.”

For independent business owners like Kalmanovitch, however, survival might depend on how well they can adapt to the Ice District and the community it’s starting to build within the downtown core.

“A vibrant city has a variety of stuff going on at a variety of times. With the arena events, there is a flux of people before and after an event, but it could be quite dead for the two to three hours the event is actually happening,” he says.

“It’s like a drug user — high and intense for a short period of time, and (the) time in between is not that great.”


Cover photo by Sydney Upright.