Next Tuesday, the City of Revelstoke will host yet another public hearing. The question is simple: Do you support adding grocery and pharmacy uses to a comprehensive development zone on the Trans-Canada Highway?
The resulting answer, when council eventually votes on the question, could have a profound impact on the future of Revelstoke.
The question surrounds the proposed shopping centre development off the Trans-Canada Highway. The proponent, Hall Pacific, is seeking to develop a strip mall with 67,000 square feet of retail space, with anchor tenants being a grocery store and a large pharmacy.
On the “for” side are the arguments that development is good and competition is good. The city needs to increase its tax base, it needs more jobs, and another grocery store might lower prices. As well, the shopping centre will draw people off the highway, and once they’ve stopped, they might realize that Revelstoke is worth a longer stop and they’ll head into town.
On the “against” side is the argument that the development will hurt the city’s downtown. Instead of bringing tourists into town, it will lead to locals shopping on the highway. Tourists that might have come into town will now only stop on the highway. Downtown businesses will close and the city will hurt as a result. Besides, does Revelstoke just want to be another cookie-cutter town with a highway strip mall?
“At this point there are more concerns,” Judy Goodman, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, told me last week. “Certainly the downtown community has been very vocal. I’ve also had seniors in my office who are concerned it could affect the vibrancy of our downtown.”
The issue was the subject of a series of a ‘Coffee Talk’ events hosted by the Chamber throughout the month of August. Turn out was strong at the first, but attendance dwindled from there, said Goodman. “There was really good, thoughtful people that said really good stuff,” she said. The Review did not attend any of the talks.
On one side came the free market view that development is good, new business is good and competition is healthy. On the other was the fear over what kind of impact it would have downtown.
“I would say they all felt this is another step that if the city doesn’t approve this, we’re seen as not being open for business,” she said. “I’m still on the fence on that one. We need to consider what’s good for everyone in the community.
“This is an opportunity for Revelstoke to sit back and say, ‘What do we really want in our community?'”
One person concerned about the potential impact is David Lafreniere, the new owner of People’s Pharmacy. I sat down with him in the small office in the back corner of the pharmacy to talk his views both as someone who grew up in Revelstoke and who’s family owned Malone’s on Mackenzie Avenue, and as someone who’s business might be impacted the most.
“From a personal perspective, I’m not keen on the development,” he said. “Not that I’m anti-development, but I don’t think it’s the best development for our town or the best use of that space.”
From a business perspective, Lafreniere is worried about a pharmacy chain like Shopper’s Drug Mart coming to town. He worries they can undercut his prices and lure away his pharmaceutical traffic.
“I just bought this place, I just had twins,” he said. “I’d like to raise my family here, so it makes me very nervous.”
From a community perspective, he worries that anything that takes people away from downtown will be detrimental to all the revitalization efforts that have taken place since Grizzly Plaza was developed in the 1980s. His fear is that if people can get groceries on the highway, what reason do they have for actually coming into town?
“I think you have to force people into town, and once you get them there you can win them over with charm,” he said. He disagrees with the suggestion the shopping centre can act as a lure to get people downtown. “I think that’s wishful thinking to justify the development, that any stop will drive people into town,” he said. “If a person is on a schedule, they’re not going to stop once, get what they need, then drive into town.”
The next person I spoke to was Steven Hui, the owner of Pharmasave. I didn’t just want to talk to pharmacists, but Hui has played a big role in the growth of the downtown community as a former member of the economic development commission and a current member of the enhancement committee. He brought a historic perspective developed from when he first moved here in 1984. At the time, Revelstoke was at the end of a major boom time spurred by the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway, then two major dams.
“It was an attractive town but you can say that it had been a busy town for a couple of decades, and where was it going to go without those big projects?,” he asked.
What emerged was a revitilization project that included Grizzly Plaza, with its cobblestone and bandshell. “The vision at that point, and I think it’s still really relevant today, is we are a downtown, and it’s distinct from the highway,” he said. “The end result now is we have a lot of unique businesses.
“My fear is we’ll become a generic stop along the Trans-Canada Highway once again — not much different from other communities,” he added.
On Friday, I spoke to Brett Renaud, who owns several construction-related businesses and chairs the city’s economic development commission. He was unabashedly supportive of the development. “My personal opinion is it will be a shame to miss an opportunity to have some development,” he said. “Having another opportunity for people to stop and take a breather and get off the road, I think we’d be foolish to miss that opportunity if someone wants to develop that.”
For Renaud, the shopping centre would be a draw into the community. Get people off the highway and then sell them on a longer stay in town. “Even if the development brought one per cent more people downtown, wouldn’t that be better for town?” he asked rhetorically.
Mitigating the impacts of the shopping centre was one thing I asked everyone I spoke to. The current Revelstoke council was elected on a pro-business, pro-development platform, and it seems unlikely they’ll oppose this proposal. They might think it’s not the best use for the site, but will they want to take the chance of turning it down in the hopes of something better coming along in the future?
Goodman said one recommendation the chamber of commerce will put forward is for an RV parking lot. They want to put a tourism kiosk at the parking lot, and even potentially rent out bikes and have a path built to the railway museum. “That’s out there because the developer doesn’t own that land, but there’s a 10 metre right of way through there,” Goodman said.
They would also like to get televisions placed in each business in order to showcase the tourism videos that have been produced, similar to the one at the Nomad.
Sean Markey, an association at the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University, said any highway development needs to be considered as an overall community plan.
“Has it been undertaken with a view of integrating what Revelstoke wants in the future, or it more blatant opportunism?” Markey said. “That can be OK too, but if it’s taken in a completely direction from what you’re imagining or wanting, that’s not a good thing.”
The city’s official community plan says highway lands should used for “orderly development of automobile-dependent accommodation and services for residents, tourists, and transient motorists along the Highway 1 corridor.” It also says downtown should be the primary commercial centre.
“Is it being done with an awareness of what impacts might be on a traditional downtown core?” asked Markey. “Getting the local business community involved in the decision making process I think is really important.”
The public hearing for the shopping centre takes place in council chambers on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 3 p.m. You can present in person, or you can submit your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or in person at city hall.