Wal-Mart presents opportunity for downtown retailers

First published:
May 8, 2002

As the steel frame and concrete walls of the new Wal-Mart store on Strathy Road go up, Cobourg merchants are responding with a Shop Locally campaign. The 13-week promotion is an unprecedented example of co-operation between merchants in throughout the town to heighten awareness in shoppers about the importance of buying from local retailers (something that has been argued in this column before).

Shoppers often forget the significance of spending dollars in Cobourg. Northumberland Mall provides about 700 jobs and about 800 people are employed in the downtown, according to campaign co-chair Karen Stinson. She estimates about $73-million each year is being spent at retail establishments outside the community.

The money spent in local stores does more than keep the economy running. Donations to charities, team and event sponsorship get money from merchants. Without this, our sports teams, public spaces, theatre groups and new hospital, among others good causes would not survive.

The entire campaign is paid by donations from those who benefit most – the retailers themselves. A committee made up of business owners is running the campaign.

But this initiative could be a Band-Aid on a wound that needs stitches.

The retail landscape is about to undergo a major structural change with the arrival of Wal-Mart. Council is already looking at development proposals that will create a commercial centre around Wal-Mart. If these are approved, shoppers will have little reason to drive beyond Strathy Road.

Cobourg deserves full marks for making an effort to change people’s shopping habits. Port Hope merchants continue to cruise along without any kind of public campaign. Colborne retailers, while smaller in number, also have not responded.

This is not surprising considering neither really took any open interest in the Wal-Mart debate. However, it is a fallacy to think the new superstore will not hammer retail business. This is the history of this kind of predatory business and it won’t be any different now.

But the structural issues that have plagued the vitality of the downtown as a commercial core will not be resolved in 13 weeks. The formation of the downtown business improvement area has been as much a source of disagreement between businesses as it as been a unifying approach.

Over its history, there have been several attempts to hire a downtown business co-ordinator with mixed results. The most recent work done by Linda Hunter and Marcie Simpson was the most successful. The high profile events organized by this dynamic duo attracted many families to the downtown, bringing people from across West Northumberland into the town’s core. The events were innovative, creative and exciting.

But never say a good deed will go unpunished. For all their efforts, the downtown merchants would not continue the contracts once the government grant for salaries ended. Now, Hunter has found a new job and an amazing resource is lost. Even if merchants reconsider, the momentum is gone.

And this may be a glimpse into what is truly at the heart of the problem.

As long as the downtown acts as a group of independent, stand-alone businesses, it will die a slow a painful death. For many years, merchants along King Street treated any business outside its borders as lepers. Thankfully, this has ended. But there continue to be those who will not work outside the four walls of their store to benefit anyone else but themselves.

Only through a co-operative effort will it flourish. There are countless models of co-ordinated business approaches. The farmer’s co-op movement is only one example. There are many variations.

Just look down the road at Port Hope’s downtown. While the relations between businesses is not always sunny, the commercial core has stuck with its vision of a historic downtown. Small, diversified, specialized businesses fill the stores. And, not only to local shoppers support the businesses, but many visitors from the GTA come to browse and spend money. There are several key events annually. And, to not rest on its laurels, the downtown is looking to hire a co-ordinator to promote events. Hopefully, if this is successful, Port Hope merchants will not suffer from the same myopia as Cobourg.

Which brings us back to the shop local campaign.

The only way any downtown in West Northumberland will be fully revitalized is if businesses are guided by their own self-interest. Shop Locally works because the merchants are responding to the marketplace. If they wish to continue to be in business, then something needed to be done. It will be the market that will inspire creativity and be the force that will unify the retail community.

This also means municipal politicians need to step aside. Tax dollars can no longer be spent on various promotions, revitalization or other forms of business welfare. Neither councillors nor municipal staff should spend any time on these projects.

The towns must stick to the fundamentals of planning, infrastructure and regulation. This doesn’t mean things like the historic downtown should fall to the whims of business. In these cases, the greater public need supercedes the entrepreneur. But sometimes a creative solution needs to come from the businesses rather than the complaining that often goes on when it comes to following the rules set out.

Instead of viewing the inevitable arrival of Wal-Mart as a tragedy, it could be an opportunity for the most significant opportunity for retailers. But it will be up to them to solve it.