For the past few years, after migrating eastward in Prince Albert for work, I haven’t been downtown a lot. This past week, however, I was downtown twice and noticed a few things. Some businesses are very busy. Even more are looking spruced up.
When I was a child, living on the farm, a trip to Prince Albert was a big deal. The downtown I remember included the OK Economy store, where you might get an orange float at the lunch counter. Safeway was nearby, just past the SGI building on 14th Street. The Medical Building was, is, maybe always will be, an anchor point at the south end of Central.
As you headed north, there were Sears and Eatons department stores on one side, the Orpheum Theatre on the other. Kresges was a great place for a kid to spend what little money you had. A stop at the post office across the street got you the week’s mail. If there was time, you might also get to Woolworth’s or the Metropolitan, the “five and dime” stores. The Strand Theatre was a magical place, on those very special occasions you got to go to a movie. Toward the north end of Central there was the old Co-op, which I can still picture in my mind, waiting for Grandma to finish her grocery shopping.
Downtown was the place to go, back when I was a kid. Even when I was a young adult, and working at the radio and TV station, it was a busy place, although you would take a precautionary look for folks who’d had too much to drink when you walked past the Avenue Hotel to go for coffee at Woolworth’s.
My kids have good memories of the downtown, too. When I was at the Herald and they were old enough to be somewhat independent, they would sometimes walk downtown after school or on a Saturday morning to stop at the library, stop at Mom’s desk to rustle up some change, and then go to Mill’s Brothers for candy. I loved Mill’s for all the newspapers and magazines; they loved the candy. I never worried about them walking downtown and they never had an unpleasant encounter. I’m not sure parents today would feel the same, or that kids would be so bold.
Things have changed. The South Hill Mall was the first big shift in retail in the 1970s, drawing shoppers away from a central business core. The Gateway Mall, itself a downtown revitalization project, also changed shopping patterns. The move to big box stores, not just in Prince Albert but throughout North America, has shifted retail away from downtown still more. Therefore, I -- and thousands of other people -- don’t need to go downtown. Groceries, clothing, household goods, specialty items are available elsewhere, right along my usual travel routes and with large, free parking lots nearby. It’s easier to not go there.
These days, when I do go downtown, I find I look at it with fresh eyes. When you are there every day, some things fade into the scenery, like the people sleeping near City Hall or asking for change. Now, as a visitor rather than a downtown regular, I see these people in the same way other visitors likely do: as people I want to avoid. I also see the grit and grime that’s around at times. This is not a sanitized, orderly mall or big box store; it’s a collection of businesses, agencies, sidewalks and streets, and it’s open to everyone. That makes it a little messy.
But all these things also make it interesting. I find I am also more aware of the positives as a visitor to the downtown. This week, I was at the Forestry Centre building -- an architectural gem in our city, in my view -- to visit one of the professional offices that have moved in there. Along with the governmental employees, we now have other professionals, and the people who use their services, creating positive traffic to this area.
I was also out for lunch, intending to go to a new restaurant near the north end of Central. When we got there, it was packed, which is great for the young woman who owns it. Our group ended up at another Central Avenue restaurant, which was also busy, but not quite as full.
A walk along Central shows updated storefronts and some interesting new boutiques. It also shows some For Rent signs, and decaying buildings. It is hardly the lost cause some would make it out to be, but there’s still room for improvement. I could do without the people who scream at each other from a block away, for example. And parking meters. Still hate them.
Other cities have bustling downtowns, usually built around some attraction. Moose Jaw, for example, has the casino and spa downtown. What would our core be like if the casino had been located there? Saskatoon has TCU Place and the Midtown Plaza to draw people downtown. Other cities have built their central business district around tourism, collecting enough interesting shops and restaurants to make an attraction in themselves. Despite all the efforts, our tourist numbers won’t support the number of small businesses other cities see.
So what will our downtown be? I think it will continue to be a place for professional and government offices, drawing people from those offices out to shop and eat at lunchtime, and serving the clients who come downtown for appointments. I think it will also be the place where new, interesting, local businesses start and, hopefully, flourish.
The downtown has changed and can’t go back to being the retail centre it was. But it will change still further in the future, contributing something new to the evolution of our city.
Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert, and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org