After amalgamating almost 10 years ago, Chatham-Kent is beginning to see the retail benefits that come with a population of more than 100,000 people.
Chatham has recently caught the eye of large corporate developers such as Vaughan-based First Pro Shopping Centres and Ottawa-based Canril Corp.
"The Chatham-Kent market was of great interest to our retailer clients because of its current size and its growth potential," says Flavio Volpe, First Pro's manager of marketing and communications.
With the Municipality of Chatham-Kent now large enough to support stores such as Home Depot and Future Shop, Chatham is diving head first into the big-box concept that exists in larger cities, with retailers in large buildings that are close together rather than numerous smaller stores inside one building.
|Peter Tiahur, Business Edge|
|Chatham-Kent director of economic development Geoff Wright emphasizes the positive impacts that the merger of the two municipalities has had.|
Geoff Wright, Chatham-Kent's director of economic development, says 22.7 per cent of the municipality's workforce was employed in sales and services occupations in 2001. While he does not have updated numbers, Wright adds that there are indications that the number of retail jobs has increased.
"Retail starts are up (and) commercial building permits have significantly increased in the last year. We've seen a vast infilling of vacant properties in all of our communities across Chatham-Kent," he says.
For example, in the second quarter of 2005, commercial building starts had a total value of $15.9 million, compared to $9.6 million in the same period last year. "That's about $7 million more than last year circulating through the economy," Wright says.
Over the past year, the site of the old North Maple Mall on the northern outskirts of Chatham has been buzzing with new retail business because of First Pro's first project in the town.
"We are looking to help facilitate the growth of our retailers in a relatively large and accommodating market," Volpe says.
A new, larger Wal-Mart store has opened and been joined by retailers including Quizno's, EB Games, Hair Masters, The Source by Circuit City and Payless Shoe Source. In September, a Real Canadian Superstore replaced the Zehrs Food Plus.
First Pro's redevelopment has been met with competition across the street from Canril Corp. A Home Depot opened in September and work has started on a Future Shop store that is scheduled to open in spring 2006.
"Anything as far as economic growth to Chatham and the Municipality of Chatham-Kent can only enhance what we offer to our local citizens and those that may be visiting our community," says Chatham and District Chamber of Commerce general manager Gail Antaya. "These developers have a strong corporate base and they are definitely winners when it comes to long-term strategic planning."
Antaya says there are approximately 470 businesses in the Chatham area that belong to the chamber.
While the redevelopment in north Chatham suggests that area is a hotspot for retail business, Wright says city officials are sticking to their plan to spread business across the municipality.
"We've developed a dispersed model that is intended to distribute the commercial activity throughout the city, so that no one node becomes so powerful that it starts to erode the others," Wright says.
"We've seen a lot of activity out at North Maple Mall and some would say that's starting to create an imbalance, but no more so than building Thames Lea Plaza did 25 or 30 years ago. Or, for that matter, building the Downtown Chatham Centre (DCC). All of these things have a tendency to balance themselves out," he says.
The DCC in the core of the city is a traditional-style indoor mall. The mall's retail manager, Linda Treacy, says about 300 people are employed at 44 stores. The mall is owned by Montreal-based Ivanhoe Cambridge.
"Business isn't doing as well as we'd like, but DCC is doing OK. Retail itself has taken a hit in the last five years, it's not just Downtown Chatham Centre. Overall, retail has levelled off," Treacy says.
But shopper Mat Drew says the DCC no longer has much to offer.
"With the new big-name stores in Chatham, I don't have a need to go out of town to shop anymore," he says. "But probably the only reason I would leave town and go to Windsor is to go to the Devonshire Mall."
Chatham resident Carol Daniels concurs: "I think within a few years it (DCC) is going to be out of business. If you go shopping there on any day of the week, it's always so dead inside that mall. I'd like to see them bring in stores like Bootlegger and Sirens."
Drew and Daniels say they are happy to see the big-box store concept finding its way to Chatham, but they worry about the independent retailers who may have a hard time competing.
"I like all the little shops we have downtown, but I'm going to go wherever the deal is," Drew says. "Wal-Mart is a one-stop shop and I know that I can get things there cheaper most of the time."
Wright says while the big-box stores may have an effect on independently owned shops, it also should push them to be more competitive.
"Quite frankly, specializing is what independent retail is all about, as well as providing the consumer with a level of service the large-box stores simply cannot compete with," he says. "There are stores in all of our downtowns in Chatham-Kent that have people who travel from Windsor, London and Sarnia to shop.
"And the main reason is because of the level of service they get and a product they can't get anywhere else," he says.
Chris Hall, former owner of the now-closed Sound Trax music store, says the big-box stores make it hard to compete.
"Places like Wal-Mart took a chunk out of my business for sure," Hall says.
"Then I found out Future Shop was opening across the road and that would take another chunk. These stores basically give their stuff away. They are selling their CDs for about a buck or so more than I'm paying for them. So there's no way I can compete with that."
Ultimately, the biggest advantage of having big-name retailers in Chatham is that they encourage residents to shop locally, Wright says.
"It helps to keep people shopping at home. Those dollars that were leaving our community are now staying put."
Adds Hall: "These corporate chainstores are the future. They may not be what I want, but they're what the customer wants."
(Dave Richie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)