Elgin merchants told to ‘plan for the worst, hope for the best’ on traffic closure

Businesses on popular downtown strip remain optimistic in face of year-long traffic shutdown
Dig Elgin
Robin Coull is owner of Pot & Pantry on Elgin Street and a leader of the I Dig Elgin campaign. File photo.

While snow fell among the barricades outside his Elgin Street bookstore in late January, Jim Sherman’s disposition couldn’t have been sunnier.

“A year without cars isn’t such a bad thing,” the owner of Perfect Books at 258 Elgin said with a smile, referring to the $36-million renovation that will close the downtown thoroughfare to vehicular traffic until the beginning of 2020.

“January is always a little slower given Christmas is finished, but comparing this January to last January, (sales) are actually a little bit up,” he added. “I haven’t seen any downturn at all. It’s a non-issue, really.”

Sherman’s optimism aside, there are bound to be nervous times ahead for at least some businesses on the street over the next 11 months or so.

The project, which will see Elgin’s sidewalks widened and hydro lines buried, will keep cars off the road from Somerset Street to Catherine Street for the remainder of 2019.

A southbound lane from Laurier Avenue to Somerset will remain open, but the northbound lane up to Nepean Street will be closed to vehicles. Detour signs directing cars to O’Connor and Metcalfe streets are now in place.

Pedestrians can still make their way down Elgin, and the city is trying to mitigate the impact of construction by offering free parking at the City Hall garage on evenings and weekends until the street reopens. 

Still, some shopkeepers fear their bottom lines will take a substantial hit.

“It’s going to impact our business, I think, a lot,” Happy Goat Coffee co-owner Ahmet Oktar told OBJ last year. “I’m trying to be positive. I hope everything will go as (the city) said.”

While businesses on Elgin are doing their best to remain upbeat, a couple of kilometres away on Rideau Street, merchants who know the pain of ongoing construction all too well are rooting for their counterparts to the south to succeed – while cautioning them to brace for lean times ahead.

“Plan for the worst, hope for the best is the way I can sum it up,” said Corey Hackett, co-owner of Top of the World on Rideau Street since 2010.

Hackett said sales at the venerable skateboard shop have plummeted 45 per cent since the city first began digging up Rideau to build the Confederation LRT tunnel four years ago. 

With the light-rail project now months behind its originally scheduled 2018 completion deadline, he’s given up on predicting when the pylons and fences lining the sidewalks will finally disappear.

Asked if he had any advice to help his counterparts on Elgin weather the storm, Hackett was blunt. 

“That’s tough for me, because I haven’t made it through a construction project,” he said, adding at least four stores on Rideau between Nicholas and Dalhousie streets have shut their doors for good since shovels first went into the ground.

Hackett said his store was forced to cut its employee count from 14 to seven and had to negotiate with some suppliers for extended payment terms on merchandise. He is urging Elgin Street business owners to take a good, hard look at their operations and trim expenses wherever they can.

“You’ve got to have a look at every corner. You’ve got to keep your head above water somehow.”

“Suppliers, as long as you’re open and honest with them, for the most part, they don’t want to lose you as a customer, so they helped us out in ways they could,” he explained.

“You’ve got to have a look at every corner. You’ve got to keep your head above water somehow.”

Beefed up social media

Across the street at Urban Outfitters, manager Maggie Hutton says construction is a headache Elgin’s retailers will just have to deal with head on.

“It directly impacts traffic,” she said. “There are some days where we come to work and the street’s blocked off by pylons. There is consistently garbage out front of the store. You remain positive, but it’s been years.”

Hutton, who lives in the Elgin neighbourhood and now has to navigate her way between the street’s construction fences on her daily walk to work, is advising merchants on the strip to beef up their social media presence and get the message out that they’re still there to serve customers.

Hutton
Maggie Hutton, manager at Urban Outfitters on Rideau Street. Photo by Mark Holleron.

She also suggested a year without car traffic might have an upside, giving businesses a chance to build a closer rapport with the clients who keep patronizing their shops.

“If it’s slower, you simply have more time to connect with your customers and make every single interaction unique,” Hutton said. 

“Think of it as a positive for your team. Those are really dedicated customers. I feel like that’s exciting, in a sense. I felt like if someone’s really making the effort to go past this construction and walk by all the pylons and behind the three walls that it takes to get here, they must really love this store, you know? Which is kind of inspiring.”

Back on Elgin, Pot & Pantry owner Robin Coull is keeping her chin up.

The local entrepreneur, who opened the kitchenware store at the corner of Cooper Street two years ago, has banded together with other nearby business owners to launch the “I Dig Elgin” campaign as a means of encouraging shoppers to keep frequenting the street during the construction period.

The campaign runs a website that provides updates on construction, information on local events and links to city material on the project, and Coull said I Dig Elgin organizers are set to announce more initiatives to promote the street in the next few weeks.

So far, she added, 2019 is off to a good start for her and other merchants she’s spoken to.

“I haven’t heard any downturn in numbers or anything,” she said. “I think everyone’s kind of feeling the same thing. I’ve heard a lot of support from community members – customers saying they’re walking and they’re enjoying the walking.

“I think we have to all continue to keep working very hard at our businesses, at supporting each other and ask that the community come and support their favourite Elgin Street businesses through this year.”