Sylvan eateries close

Sylvan Lake has lost a couple of its lakefront restaurants, and the man behind them thinks the closures reflect bigger problems in the town’s downtown.

Sylvan Lake has lost a couple of its lakefront restaurants, and the man behind them thinks the closures reflect bigger problems in the town’s downtown.

Smuggler’s Inn ceased operations Sunday evening, about a month after Ricardo’s Ristorante — which shared the building at 5000 Lakeshore Dr. with Smuggler’s — suffered the same fate.

“I should have done it two years ago,” said Bert Messier, whose company Bear Development Corp. owned the restaurants.

“I kept on monitoring it and hoping that things would improve.”

The Smuggler’s name and concept were licensed from a longtime restaurant with the same name in Calgary. When the Sylvan Lake Smuggler’s opened in 2005, it occupied both floors of the 3,000-square-foot building that overlooks the lake. But its footprint was later reduced to just the second floor, with Ricardo’s taking over the main level a year and a half ago.

Business was good in the summer, said Messier, but dropped off in the fall and sank even further during the winter months. Exacerbating the situation was the relatively few people who work in the downtown and eat lunch there, he added.

The economic downturn in recent years also hurt, said Messier, as did the disruption of traffic along Lakeshore Drive as the area underwent a major makeover.

He also blames commercial growth in places like Ryders Square and Beju Industrial Park for drawing consumers away from the downtown. Messier acknowledged that he contributed to this situation, thanks to his role in developing Hewlett Park Landing — another commercial area away from the lake — a dozen years ago.

Now, he said, the downtown is suffering.

“Everywhere you go you’ve got ‘closed’ signs or ‘for sale’ signs.”

He said he’s aware of at least one other restaurant owner who’s struggling to stay in business.

Messier wants to sell his building, but might lease it out if the conditions were right. He said he’s had interest from someone who is considering a non-restaurant use of the premises.

Ken Sumner, who is president of the Sylvan Lake Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the downtown faces challenges. But he’s optimistic these will be overcome, and pointed out that the chamber and town are seeking solutions.

“We’re exploring some stuff on downtown revitalization.”

Sumner added that many other communities face similar problems in their downtowns. Sylvan Lake has the advantages of being located on a popular lake and having a rapidly growing population, he noted.

Matthew Cornall, Sylvan Lake’s economic development officer, also sees reasons to be positive. Among these are plans to convert Cobb’s AG Foods — which closed earlier this year after decades of operation downtown — into an upscale shopping centre.

“That redevelopment is really key, as would be the new (proposed) arena development.”

Sumner agreed that the Cobb’s project is very encouraging.

Cornall said local retailers have been dealing with a challenging economy, and the town’s growth has prompted changes — such as the arrival of box stores. New residential subdivisions also don’t have the same geographic link to the downtown as do older neighbourhoods, he added.

“We are aware of the challenges, and it’s something that obviously we’re spending a lot of time trying to help (downtown businesses) with.”

A greater downtown revitalization project is currently underway, with a related workshop scheduled for Nov. 20, said Cornall. But, he added, the town must also be attentive to the needs of retailers throughout the community, not just those in the downtown core.

Messier thinks one solution would be to add a feature to the downtown that would make it a year-round destination: a casino.

“You need something that will draw the people.”