A sharp decline in Christmas shoppers has left some struggling downtown Red Deer merchants calling for urgent help from the city and downtown business association in the New Year.
Lisa Spencer-Cook of LV’s Vinyl Cafe, said they can’t wait until the downtown business association does a $10,000 downtown re-branding next summer: “Many of us won’t be around by then.”
Chronicles Cafe, Amazing Fantasy, Occams Razor, Games Music, Here to Mars, LV’s Vinyl Cafe, The Velvet Olive were among the businesses that sent a letter earlier this month to Amanda Gould, executive-director of the Downtown Business Association.
The merchants — who pay an enforced levy that supports the DBA — are demanding the association be more responsive to their needs.
Spencer-Cook said most of the business owners who sent the letter have never had a visit from a DBA representative, or been able to attend regular meetings at which they can voice opinions or give feedback.
In this tight economy, new ideas are desperately needed to help overcome public perceptions of the downtown being a dangerous place, said Spencer-Cook.
She’s among the merchants who want the DBA to develop a more comprehensive marketing campaign to help bring people back to Red Deer’s historic core, including better social marketing and a revamped radio and print campaign.
But according to Gould, the DBA already does many special promotions and offers merchants subsidized advertising opportunities, as well as promoting the downtown on radio, print and online.
“We give events organizers logistical support, and even funding, as an incentive to bring their events to the core,” said Gould.
She noted the DBA also advocated for special policing support, for more lighting along Alexander Way, and against certain social services moving in that would hinder downtown businesses. For example, Gould said the DBA lobbied to ensure the overdose prevention site was located outside the business improvement area.
And yet, the situation at the heart of the city is as bleak as Games Music store owner Tony Redelback has ever seen it.
“The streets are barren down here,” said Redelback on Monday, when hardly any shoppers could be seen, two days before Christmas.
With fewer customers, he can’t afford to pay his staff. As a result, he’s closing his three-decade-old business once most of the stock is sold in the new year.
While Redelback experienced a break-in last week that added to the strain of doing business, he doesn’t believe the downtown is a dangerous place — especially not with the RCMP and citizen patrols happening.
The trouble is, regular shoppers are staying away because of their perception that crime is rampant, said Redelback.
He believes it would help if the DBA was honest in its portrayals of the downtown and didn’t sugarcoat it: “Say it’s isn’t perfect, but it’s not as bad as people think.”
While business owners count on strong Christmas sales to carry them the rest of the year, Redelback added, “This year, I can’t even tell it’s December when I look at the till tape…”
Sales are down “hugely” — 25 to 40 per cent from last year, estimates Catherine Robb, owner of Housewarmings. “It’s so unfortunate to see businesses closing on the street,” she said, referring to Red Boar Smokery, Hudsons (on Dec. 28) and now Games Music.
Robb believes the DBA is doing what it’s always done — and some of it works well, such as the Wednesday Farmer’s Market and Ross Street Patio.
But the unusually challenging times require a renewed, doubled-down effort, added Robb.
She and many of the other business owners believe it’s time to hire experts in marketing, as well as experts who can help the downtown overcome negative perceptions of the city’s historic and cultural core.
Since the small, walkable downtown can’t take any more social agency pressures, downtown merchants want the city to re-examine zoning and land use rules to ensure that businesses are the priority in the city’s core.
Although Paul Harris, owner of Sunworks, had a better Christmas season than last year, and doesn’t agree with some of the criticism of the DBA, he does want the city’s centre preserved for the good of all of Red Deer.
After all, Harris notes a healthy downtown business tax base is needed to help pay for playgrounds and other amenities around Red Deer.