The vacant SaveEasy building in Churchill Square was a topic of discussion Wednesday night at a meeting of business owners. — Telegram file photo
About a dozen Churchill Square business owners took the first steps Wednesday night to re-establish the shopping area’s long-defunct business-improvement association (BIA).
Shop owners gathered at St. John’s city hall for a public meeting about restarting the association, which fizzled out in 1995 after less than five years in existence due to a lack of participation. Coun. Sandy Hickman said he would have liked to have seen a better turnout, but said it was a good first step, and that this initial meeting — intended to see if there’s enough interest — gathered several of the area’s business leaders.
“What the city’s going to do is try and help them get out there and get in contact with the other businesses and show them the value of a BIA, and what the city can do to assist a BIA, and the fact that it could lead to better co-operation and better planning that is representative of what the business owners would see as enhancing Churchill Square.”
Gary Burt, owner of the Churchill Square Tim Hortons, said he hopes the association will be re-established.
“I think it’s a good move towards trying to reestablish the square,” Burt said. “It seems to be falling off with some businesses not participating in the square and using their space, and it would be nice to see those spaces filled up. It would be good for business, it would be good for the community and the whole area. So it seems to be the right direction to take.”
Coun. Debbie Hanlon — the Ward 4 councillor who represents the area and one of the organizers of the public meeting — said reinstating the association would be an excellent way for business owners to put forward a unified vision of what the square should be.
“Churchill Square does have some unique challenges — where it’s located, and so many different businesses all together, and they share a common parking ground, and then there’s schools in the area, so there’s sometimes issues with children, with litter, and on back of it is condominiums with a lot of people 50-plus,” said Hanlon, who couldn’t attend the meeting due to a family commitment. “So you look at that particular area, it’s like a feeder for a lot of other businesses and a lot of different people, so it has a lot of unique challenges, and we come to the city piecemeal to try to fix this, and try to fix that.”
But one large — literally — problem that association won’t be able to tackle is the empty former grocery store, vacant since SaveEasy closed a year and a half ago. Keith Storey, owner of Living Rooms, suggested council needs to do more to pressure building owner Loblaw to rent the space to another tenant or sell it, but Coun. Tom Hann said city council needs to be careful what it tells businesses they can and can’t do, and the city can’t do anything unless the building is unsafe or falling in disrepair.
Storey wouldn’t accept that nothing could be done, and noted the vacant building owned by Loblaw isn’t unique to Churchill Square.
“Council in the past has allowed them to build elsewhere and then effectively hold the city to ransom by leaving the other properties they’ve vacated vacant for a long time,” said Storey, pointing to similarly empty buildings on Ropewalk Lane and Newfoundland Drive. “The city has no regulations or permitting procedure to deal with those issues beyond if the building is unsafe or in any way unhealthy, and I think that there needs to be a real review of that issue, as apparently there is by city staff, to introduce some alternative legislation so that private property owners, whether they’re large or small, essentially pay the cost of leaving a building vacant.”
Hickman acknowledged the problem is a difficult one, and that another grocery store in the area would help revitalize it.
“There’s been a lot of public pressure applied, led partly by some of the councillors, and certainly by the residents. A letter-writing campaign, a lot of media coverage, and it seems like Loblaw’s are going to do what they want to do, and you can’t totally criticize them. But as a resident of the area myself, and as a city councillor, there’s no question that a community grocery store, as opposed to a huge multi-department supermarket, is needed in Churchill Square.”
Hickman said the area is home to many Memorial University students as well as seniors who have been living there for decades.
“They have always depended on Churchill Square for their groceries, and it was a big loss for them to go elsewhere.”