All I want for Christmas is a supermarket

Susan
Susan Flanagan
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... Instead of eyesore properties where grocery stores used to be

The former SaveEasy supermarket sits idle in Churchill Square. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Churchill Square in St. John’s has been good to me. As a child, I once picked up a $20 bill on the floor at Ayre’s and Giant Mart.

Dad made me pass it in to the administration office. But lo and behold, a week later we got a call saying no one had claimed the money and it was mine. Twenty dollars was a gold mine back then. Who says good deeds are not rewarded?

From Ayre’s and Giant Mart and Macy’s, my consumer days continued at places like Alpine Country Lodge, where I have been shopping for over 25 years. I remember my first Woolrich coat with the red plaid interior. I simply could not wear that thing out. I ended up giving it to my Colorado friend Alycia way back when we lived in Japan, and she told me she only recently passed it along.

That same Alycia just served her family smoked salmon for American Thanksgiving that I picked up at Paddy Fitzgerald’s fish shop and brought to oceanless Colorado.

I got my fresh produce for our Canadian Thanksgiving from Jocelyn Fagan’s veggie truck.

Every Sunday I meet my running partner at the Running Room. In the evening, if I so desire, I can walk to Ben’s for a drink and drop my dry cleaning along the way. That’s a lot packed into one square.

Churchill Square has provided more than places to shop. It’s also provided employment. In high school I worked at Auntie Crae’s next to Shoppers in the main building. No. 2 has been employed at Big Bite for two years. My husband even worked in the Square for a few months when we first moved home from Japan.

And goodness knows how many lunchtime meals have been eaten there by my children and other Gonzaga students.

From the Back to the Future-ish main building to Winston Churchill’s bust standing guard across the street, Churchill Square looks nice, too. It is the place it was designed to be: reasonable housing with all amenities just a few minutes’ walk out the door.

Everything is there for both seniors and the nearby MUN students, both groups of whom often don’t drive — doctor, dentist, prescription-filling pharmacy, post office, bank, hairdresser, coffee shop, pub, restaurants; both quick and easy and upscale. Everything that is, except for one gaping absence.

 

Gap in the square

Ever since last spring, Churchill Square has been without a supermarket. Seniors and university students were the biggest frequenters of the SaveEasy that used to be in the void between Scotiabank and Deluxe Drycleaners (despite the fact that its prices were higher than in some of its sister Dominion stores).

I know the question has been kicking around for a while, but why is it that another grocer has not set up shop in Churchill Square? Is it because Loblaw can effectively prevent competitors from taking over the space they no longer occupy? Is it not economically feasible? Is it not wanted?

I doubt the latter is the case. A supermarket is definitely wanted, as a petition signed by hundreds of people earlier in the year indicated. But Loblaw has broken no laws and is presumably paying taxes on its vacant sites.

One thing is certain, we can’t sit back and expect profit-driven companies to act in the best interest of their competitors.

And, unfortunately, Loblaw knows too well that convenience trumps anger every time they pull out of a strip mall and, within months, upset customers are beating down their box-store doors, filling carts with No Name and George Fresh.

I was determined to boycott Loblaw’s new box stores when they closed down the supermarket on Newfoundland Drive — that’s where my mother always shopped.

She could walk there from her house. My boycott was short-lived because one day I spotted half-price Quaker Oat Squares in the flyer and off I went, tail between my legs, to pick up a couple of dozen boxes.

The Elizabeth Avenue East Dominion also, and the new Memorial Stadium Dominion opened. It was around that time that the Dominion in Churchill Square became a Loblaw SaveEasy. Now, like Newfoundland Drive and Ropewalk Lane locations, it’s nothing.

Thank God the Elizabeth Avenue East site was torn down or that would probably be another eyesore.

 

No luck with the lease

Remember when Kathie Hicks of Spirit of Newfoundland dinner

theatres approached Loblaw to lease their building in Churchill Square last May? No siree, Bob, they said. Especially considering she was intending on opening a healthy market that might — gasp — sell food.

The aforementioned petition, pleading with Loblaw to either open another supermarket on the site or allow someone else to, went nowhere.

If we, the people of St. John’s, want change, we have to work together to push for city bylaws and provincial laws preventing companies from leaving buildings vacant for extended periods.

If we can’t get government to take action by passing a law to take care of the problem, then we can suggest high tax penalties if stores are left vacant. We could use the same concept as the offshore oil land bids — you bid on the land, agree to spend so much money in exploration, and if you don’t, you lose the land.

Same for retailers: if you don’t use the land, you pay higher taxes or lose it.

When I told my husband I spoke to the director of corporate affairs for Loblaw in Atlantic Canada to ask him what plans they have for the former SaveEasy property, he  responded: “Let me guess. He said they’re looking at all their options.”

My goodness, my husband is a brilliant mind-reader.

“We’re assessing what makes most sense for us,” says Mark Boudreau about that property. “We’re exploring all our options. … We’ve got a lot of options on the table. We’re actively looking at options.”

When I asked Boudreau about Hicks’ proposal to lease Loblaw space in Churchill Square for a market, he said, “I’m not aware of that particular proposal.”

Boudreau said Loblaw does not continue to rent empty spaces so that competition doesn’t move in. And who knows if there have been any other tenants willing to pay the full value of the rent. Why would Loblaw want to rent out their space at a loss to allow a competitor in?

I could argue that it’s just not fair to leave buildings vacant in otherwise pleasant urban spaces. But until there’s a city bylaw or provincial law in place preventing retailers from keeping space empty for long periods, then it’s tough noogies for me.

If, however, that is what the people want, then we should speak up and lobby government to do something about it.

 

Rents running out

Boudreau did say the leases on both the Newfoundland Drive and the Ropewalk Lane properties expire early next year and then it will be up to the owners of the properties to choose who to rent to. Let’s just pray they don’t renew Loblaw’s lease.

 “We embrace our role as a leading corporate citizen,” says the Loblaw 2011 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.

The annual report contains a section called Ethical Business Conduct, which states: “The code reflects the company’s long-standing commitment to high standards of ethical conduct and business practices. The code is reviewed annually to ensure it is current and reflects best practices in the area of ethical business conduct. All directors, officers and employees of the company are required to comply with the code and must acknowledge their commitment to abide by the code on a periodic basis.”

Hmmm.

I suggested to Boudreau that Loblaw only has the bottom line in mind and doesn’t give two hoots about non-automobile-owning seniors and university students who could walk to their store. His response: an invitation to meet with him in January or February when he comes to St. John’s to create some relationships.

I am aware Loblaw is a for-profit company and has the right to close a store that is not bringing in earnings. I know they have the right to keep buildings vacant just to keep out potential competitors.

But should they have that right?

Maybe, like the Grinch, the heart of Loblaw executives will grow two sizes this Christmas and next year they will allow someone else to update and move into their eyesore  properties. Otherwise let’s pray they go back in there themselves and live up to their corporate mumbo-jumbo ethical business code.

 

Susan Flanagan is a writer who doesn’t buy diamonds but, even so, Pat Thompson greets her at the door of his Churchill Square shop with a broad smile, just as if she had dropped a million dollars at his place. Susan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

Dragonfly feedback

Shirley Newhook writes: “I just reread your ‘dragonfly’ article from (the) paper … and the tears flowed again. What a beautiful item. I’ve been a longtime member of the Fluvarium board of directors and know what magic Bob can create when he shares his knowledge with young people (I’ve been on some of his tours).

“How lucky we are in this province to have this facility and the staff to share it. Thank you for reminding us. Merry Christmas and warmest wishes for the season.”

Jane writes: “Someone close to me was inspired to send me your story Susan. Thank you so much for sharing! It is wonderful to be pinched every now and again in our hustle and bustle to realize that each of us in our own personal ‘circle of life’ does something to touch the lives of others. Tag … Greetings Ros … I hired Bob many moons ago at the Fluvarium … I’ve had a smile in my heart ever since … truly a ‘special’ mentor of nature … and the circle goes on … again, thank you Susan. Gracious wishes to all and your families this season.”

Leonie writes: “Susan just read your beautiful article (in) today’s paper, Dec. 4th. I really enjoyed it. And it didn’t surprise me when I read Father Puddister’s definition of life after death. He was my parish priest at one time and I always enjoyed his wonderful sermons.”

Fluvarium Bob writes: “Honoured for the comparison to Miss Frizzle, though I’m envious of her flying bus! In November, I celebrated my 20th year of working here at the Fluvarium, and over that time have, during moments of reflection … often drawn on the connectedness of nature to the human experience.

“I was touched by your story, and I thank you for sharing it with your readers.

“I often tell my summer staff, usually young MUN biology or education students, that what we do here at the Fluvarium ‘ain’t rocket science,’ but it has value. It can’t be measured monetarily, or with a finished physical entity, for we provide an experience. I always hope that the experience in some way resonates with children and adults alike. It obviously did with you!

“Some years ago, at the time of my father-in-law’s passing, my (wife) and I used a similar experience with a butterfly to try to explain to our young boys the concept of death. Our connection to this Earth is greater than we think. Thank you again Susan, God bless.”

Rosalind writes: “(The) story of ‘What a dragonfly taught me,’ meant so much to me in 2 ways. One, Bob at the Fluvarium is my husband and he inspires children and adults of all ages of the circle of life; and two, I also lost my dad, and the connection between the dragonfly and life after is very warming. Thanks for sharing this Susan.”

Gordon writes: “I have always loved the story of the dragonfly. I now have a dragonfly tattoo in memory of a loved one. There is also a storybook for children, ‘The Dragonfly Door’ which tells this story to help children understand death and loss. Thank you for sharing.”

Mike writes: “An absolutely beautiful, metaphorical column yesterday. I strongly recommend that you read the classic short story by James Blish, entitled ‘Surface Tension,’ originally published 1952, reprinted many times in various anthologies. Probably available online for free somewhere. As you can probably guess by the title, the story will remind you of your metaphor of the dragonflies breaking through the surface of the pond. One of the most memorable reads of my life.”

 

Marathon feedback:

Donna writes: “Loved reading of your Colorado marathon — you have a lovely way with words. Congratulations to you both and I hope Tokyo becomes a reality.

“Your friend Doot is a hoot, is she not, running marathons at 72.”

 

NL tartan feedback

Angela writes: “I enjoy your column; it brings back memories when my children were home and I was a very busy mom driving them all around town. They both went to university out of Canada and no longer live at home so enjoy being busy with your children as in no time they will be gone. We are now empty-nesters and we enjoying ourselves.

“Your article ‘Prize possession,’ I just thought I would correct you on one point. You stated that Wilansky, in 1955 developed the Newfoundland tartan. Newfoundland tartan was designed by a cousin of mine, Ted Coleman. Wilansky was the money behind it. Ted worked at Wilansky’s at that time.

“The Newfoundland tartan was designed in 1955 by Ted Coleman. The colours of the tartan are partly based on the lyrics to the ‘Ode to Newfoundland’: gold — sun; green — the pine clad hills; white — snow; brown for the minerals under the earth, while the red represents the province’s British origin. Ted has since passed away, a veteran of (the Second World War), 166 Newfoundland Regiment. An artist and gracious man. His wife Joan is still alive at 87 years young.”

Organizations: Loblaw, Dominion, Giant Mart.Dad American Thanksgiving Fluvarium Scotiabank

Geographic location: Churchill Square, Colorado, Japan Newfoundland Alpine Country Lodge Atlantic Canada Elizabeth Avenue East Tokyo

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Recent comments

  • david
    December 11, 2012 - 21:13

    Isn't it lovely how the wealth of oil money has moved townies like Susan to wallow in their nostalgia for old St. John's? Note to Susan: the rest of Newfoundland is still impoverished ,can't buy a fresh apple, and stuggles to make ends meet. So please continue to enjoy our oil and lament your quality of life struggle under the nouveau wealth....we aren't

  • Community grocer
    December 11, 2012 - 17:56

    It would be a wonderful location for a small community store like Coleman's or Belbin's--a store with fresh local produce and meats, really good homestyle baking and friendly staff. An old fashioned lunch counter would be nice too. The students, families and seniors in the area would love it.

  • RATTER
    December 11, 2012 - 15:30

    You did not have to pay for parking at the Dominion at Chruchill Square. You parked freein the space between the drycleaning and Bens. I shopped there when it was knows as Ayre's Supermarket, then Ayre's Dominion and then Dominion. We need a supermarket in Churchill Square.

  • John in Whitbourne
    December 11, 2012 - 08:56

    Can you name another supermarket in the area that requires you to pay for parking? I think that is a killer for the location.