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Downtown Red Deer welcomes Christmas shoppers after a healthier year

Some store owners say 2023 is starting to look up
Spandy Elfy prepares to dazzle the crowds for a Ross Street patio party Friday in Red Deer. Next Friday, Dec. 15, downtown retailers will be open to 7 p.m. and there will be another holiday party on the patio from 4 p.m. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

With Christmas shopping season kicking into high gear, many downtown Red Deer business owners are feeling more optimistic than they have in years.

Retail shops are preparing to stay open longer for the Downtown Twinkle Tour, which runs from 4-7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 15, to help Red Deerians with their holiday shopping.

That same evening, customers can pick up a free hot chocolate and a copy of the holiday scavenger hunt contest on the Ross Street Patio before checking out the unique goods and beautiful window displays in stores. The City of Red Deer’s bedecked Christmas bus will also be rolling down the street.

Three years after the pandemic nearly shut down Red Deer’s downtown, many core-area merchants are seeing some hopeful signs of recovery.

“It feels normal right now, but I don’t want to jinx it,” ” said Paul Harris, co-owner of Sunworks Living.

His home goods store relocated to Little Gaetz from Ross Street in 2019, just before the viral outbreak. Harris said it took a while to adjust to the new space. But Sunworks has since expanded services by opening a coffee bar and, more recently, expanding to the lower level where White Gallery was re-opened to exhibit and sell art.

Harris hopes more empty downtown shop fronts will be filled with new businesses in 2024. “I feel it’s going to happen, with the new courthouse opening and renovations on the old Canada Post building,” he added.

Michelle Edwards, who manages Country Cupboard, had to deal with another major hurdle besides COVID. A fire in 2021 closed the store for nearly a year and a half while renovations were underway.

While Edwards looks forward to seeing regular customers again, she has noticed a difference in their spending habits. More people are making more careful purchases — they think about an item and often return for it rather than spontaneously spending money.

Although she believes business is not yet fully recovered and hopes for the regional economy to improve in 2024, Edwards has noticed the Christmas season is causing a welcome bump in customer traffic.

Junktiques occupies a unique place in the downtown as it contains the region’s only Pride Store and also carries vintage clothing and other pre-owned merchandise, which make for trendy purchases these days by young people. Owner Vicki Finlay feels her store has continued to do quite well because its offerings aren’t available elsewhere.

She remains grateful for her supportive customers, who continued buying right through the pandemic. But since the Red Deer region’s economy had taken a hit even before the COVID outbreak, Edwards said, “I don’t know what ‘normal’ is…”

Curiosity Art and Framing moved downtown in June. Owner Andre Hatch is pleased to see walk-by traffic increase significantly since the gallery was on Riverside Drive.

She noticed Christmas shopping season got off to a slow start, perhaps because of the warmer weather, but suddenly there has been a rush in orders over the last week.

Hatch and Finlay both hope Red Deerians who have been reluctant to come downtown will give it a chance this Christmas season and in 2024.

A lot of people hear exaggerated accounts of how vagrancy is out of hand, said Hatch, who believes they need to come and see for themselves. “This is not a very scary spot. I’d like to see more people walking around.”

Finlay works and resides at the city’s core and feels very safe. She suggested Red Deerians “give it a chance,” come see what’s downtown and support local businesses.

Red Deer’s Ross Street Patio is all decked out for holiday patio parties. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).