August 18, 2002
The arrival of Wal-Mart last week marks a watershed in Northumberland County’s economy. Regardless of what side of the debate you sat on during the long, tense marathon to approve the power store, it’s grand opening Thursday was significant from both perspectives.
While opponents and supporters made many forecasts, the next few months will be the most critical. The impact of the power store will be felt for years, possibly decades. Nobody knows for sure whether this will be a boon or bust.
Wal-Mart’s staff must be pleased with the opening. The parking lot was packed and the store busy from most reports. Some 300 people lined up opening day and traffic was heavy. Strathy Road looks like Highway 401 these days, a far cry from the once quite cul de sac it used to be.
Critics will say the response is attributed to people’s curiosity, similar to any new business when it first opens. But this is a critical time for retail. Between the back to school sales and the Christmas period it determines the survival of any retailer as more than half of annual sales will take place. Sometimes it can be more.
Cobourg’s retail sector, most particularly the downtown, will feel the heat intensely. But nobody can forget that this is a regional shopping centre. Port Hope may sustain the blow, since its downtown is made up of smaller niche market stores such as antique shops. But businesses from Colborne through to Clarington will no doubt feel the strain.
The shop local campaign earlier this summer was a positive first step by some retailers to remain competitive. So is the upcoming seminar being offered by the Cobourg Chamber of Commerce regarding strategies for businesses facing competition from Wal-Mart. The seeds of the entrepreneurial spirit are not dead. They just need some fertile ground. We will see how many attend the workshop.
It also represents a significant shift in the economic centre for the area. While downtowns were once the hub of retail activity that has all shifted now to the Strathy Road area.
This will be strengthened when the new hospital opens its doors. A proposed Loblaws store and restaurant are only harbingers of things to come. The new strip mall beside Terry Fox School on Burnham Street is another indication.
What is uncanny is the surplus of retail space in the area. Northumberland Mall has never been fully leased over its 10-year history. There are many empty stores, not just in the downtown cores. Cobourg’s lack of a downtown co-ordinator is more apparent than ever. And council lacks any plans to deal with the widespread vacancies.
However, if Wal-Mart supporters are correct, these long lines of traffic and packed parking lots mean new potential customers for existing businesses. For those who are up for the challenge, there could be some success stories.
At the very centre of all of this is the way we determine our future. The path we chose to take must represent the best interests of all members of our community.
The heart of the Wal-Mart debate was planning. The town’s official plan allowed Wal-Mart to open. Each party interpreted various aspects of the plan in different ways.
Planning is one of the least exciting aspects of our lives in this community until something like Wal-Mart comes along. It certainly stirred a great deal of interest and, as we have said earlier, its impact will be felt for a long time. Look at the debates in Port Hope over a new MacDonalds and the AON development. There has been a lot of strong emotion during those public meetings and it is far from over.
Yet, Port Hope provides a timely lesson. Its official plan is currently under review. During four public meetings at the Legion Hall less than half the seats were filled. That is a far cry from the AON public meetings where there was standing room only.
As citizens we cannot talk out of both sides of our mouths. We can not coming pouring out to public meeting screaming bloody murder about threats to our way of life when proposals come before council and yet we will not take the time to have input into the official plan.
This is also the time to lay down the ground rules for any future debate and public input. While the province legislates many aspects of planning, there is nothing stopping municipalities from enhancing or strengthening any aspect.
Port Hope has a unique opportunity to create a new set of rules for dealing with future development of the community. All it would take is an innovative approach and a heartfelt effort by all citizens to become involved in the process. This blueprint could be used by Cobourg, Colborne and other municipalities in the future. A review of all official plans should take place in the wake of what has happened, regardless of how long ago official plans were done.
We cannot afford to be bored or disinterested. Our jobs are at stake. Our livelihoods are on the line. Our future lies in the balance. Let us not miss our chance.