Among the quaint brick buildings on Central Avenue downtown, one finds a hip café, the Bison, across from which is a Vancouver-style holistic health shop. As of Aug. 1, the street’s cool-factor will increase even more, when a spa opens up.
© Herald photo by Kevin Hampson.
Shauna Eveleigh Harris stands behind the antique counter in her Central Avenue shop, Mind Over Matter, on Saturday.
Is Central Avenue becoming gentrified?
Business owner Celina Epp-Neufeld thinks so. And she’s betting on it: she’s the one opening the spa, one block north of the Bison Café.
“I see (Central Avenue) as Broadway in Saskatoon and Cathedral Street in Regina; bringing the old buildings back to life and having boutiques,” she said.
The old civic buildings, churches and brick storefronts might be a little rough around the edges, but they’re valuable assets, Epp-Neufeld said.
Her philosophy is, rather than building something new, it’s better to “take something old and bring it back to life, the way it used to be.”
She believes Prince Albertans, bored with bland shopping malls, would be drawn to a revitalized downtown, because of its charm and sense of place.
“I definitely see it becoming much more popular. I think people are going back to the mom and pop businesses instead of the big chain stores,” she said.
Other Central Avenue business owners agree.
Shauna Eveleigh Harris, owner of Mind Over Matter, a shop with books and holistic health products, has customers who miss the experience of a vibrant downtown core.
“There are people who remember the ‘60s and ‘70s, getting dressed in their Sunday best and just walking down the street, shopping,” Harris said.
Jim Jackson, who owns an antique shop below Harris’s, envisions that kind of scene returning to the downtown.
“I think you’re going to see the sidewalk shopping like the old days come back,” he said. “People will go for a walk and enjoy the vast variety of shops.”
One reason for the optimism is the foot patrols that the Prince Albert Police Service is doing. Jackson often sees the uniformed policemen strolling down the street or chatting with people on the corner.
That visibility is important, the business owners say. To be sure, it decreases the risk of theft; but Harris doesn’t believe there’s much risk of serious theft or violence, she said. The police presence is more about creating a sense of order so that people can relax and enjoy themselves.
“There’s a difference between feeling unsafe and feeling uncomfortable,” Harris said, quoting another Central Avenue business owner.
There are people who remember the ‘60s and ‘70s, getting dressed in their Sunday best and just walking down the street, shopping. Central Avenue shop-owner Shauna Eveleigh Harris
Unsavoury types who hang around downtown -- doing drugs, asking for change, walking around drunk -- may not pose a real threat, but they create a sense of insecurity and an unpleasant atmosphere.
That, Harris said, is part of what makes it challenging to convince people to come downtown.
Restoration requires effort from building owners, shop-keepers, the city and citizens, councillor says
That is where city council can help make a difference, Coun. Rick Orr said.
“It’s up to us to provide the policing and other things that are needed so the merchants can do their job,” Orr said.
But revitalizing the downtown requires more than policing and bylaws, he added.
A visible police presence helps keep ne’er-do-wells away, but so does a host of other things that depend on citizens.
“It takes the owners of the buildings to improve the façade,” Orr said. Once the buildings are looking nice, and a friendly police presence is established, more merchants will decide to open shops, he added.
Then host outdoor activities, such as the Farmers’ Market, and families will come. That will create an “atmosphere,” Orr said, which will in turn repel the unsavoury types even more.
“As long as you have activity and families there, it keeps away the people who are up to no good.”
But apart from painting over graffiti and having the police walk the streets, much of the work that needs to be done is out of city council’s hands, Orr said.
That is all very well, but one of the city's policies actually deters people from shopping downtown, Harris said: pay parking.
On that issue, Orr sympathizes with business owners. “From what I’ve heard from the business community, they’d like to see (the parking meters) go, and I agree with them.”
The problem is that the meters provide a large source of revenue for the city. On the possibility of putting some of that money towards downtown revitalization, Orr sees little will, apart from his own, in city council.