Some downtown Red Deer businesses are concerned the John Howard Society is turning prime retail space on Ross Street into an office expansion for a non-profit agency.
Amanda Gould, executive director of the Downtown Red Deer Business Association, is worried the core is being overwhelmed with social service agencies when it needs to retain a strong retail presence.
She believes giving prominent, street-level access on Ross Street to a non-profit group is breaking a verbal agreement that downtown businesses had with the John Howard Society when the organization moved onto the second floor of the former Park Hotel about 17 years ago.
“Businesses will not be happy with this,” confirmed Sunworks owner Paul Harris, who affirmed that a “handshake deal” was made to keep street-level access for retail.
In about 2001, the John Howard Society, which helps released prisoners readjust to life in the community, suggested moving onto the second floor of the former Park Hotel.
Harris recalled this was the third location explored by the society after negative community reaction shot down two other prospective locations.
At the time, neighbouring downtown businesses agreed not to oppose John Howard’s move to Ross Street on condition that the social service agency stay upstairs and keep the street-level space for retail, said Harris.
This was also confirmed by Catherine Robb, owner of Housewarmings gift store.
For many years, Robb leased most of the downstairs retail space beneath the John Howard Society. But Robb received written notice last summer that her lease on part of the Housewarmings space would not be renewed.
The letter from the John Howard Society stated the east side of the retail bay was needed for an expansion of a legal aid agency, which works with the society, said Robb.
She added this was a major factor in Housewarmings relocating across Ross Street into a building she has purchased.
Last week, Gould sent a letter to current John Howard Society executive director Gordon Wright, to fill him in about the verbal agreement with the society.
“There is currently considerable concern from the Ross Street businesses that this agreement will no longer be honoured,” wrote Gould.
“Although the DBA very much supports the work of agencies serving the vulnerable population, the addition of a non-retail or restaurant business in such a high-profile location will negatively impact the DBA’s quest for vibrancy from a business attraction, retention and investment perspective.”
While a local spokesperson for the John Howard Society could not be reached for comment, Erin Stuart, inspections and licensing manager for the City of Red Deer, confirmed that the non-profit has applied for a building permit to change the retail space into office use.
The society still needs to submit a development permit. But Stuart added that office space is an allowable use in the commercial district, and would be approved without the need for a public hearing, or for city council’s approval.
The downtown business owners are hoping to make their case with Wright before considering other options.