‘It’s the heart of the city’: Despite a tough year, optimism wins on Whyte Avenue

This is Part 2 of a two-part feature about the Whyte Avenue area before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Read Part 1 here.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Whyte Avenue was an area full of energy. People came to enjoy the nightlife, window shopping, dinners, brunch and coffee shops.

Like everywhere else, the area was forced to pivot when the pandemic hit.

Restaurants were no longer packed with laughing and eating, retail stores had to limit how many people could come inside at a time, and it seemed there were more “for rent” and “for sale” signs popping up in windows.

The Old Strathcona Business Association has certainly seen a shift, but also says the effects of the pandemic aren’t as drastic as it feared.

The loss of about 10 per cent of businesses in all of Old Strathcona was much lower than anticipated, executive director Cherie Klassen said.

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“To say that our small businesses have not suffered is definitely not true,” she said. “But I’ve seen so much creativity with entrepreneurs, and I think that that is exactly what is an entrepreneur.

“They can easily pivot and they’ve probably shifted their business model six or seven times.”

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A business in the area that has shifted several times is Sugared and Spiced, a small bakery in the alley off 83 Avenue and 103 Street. After several pivots, Jeff Nachtigall, one of the directors of the bakery, says things are looking up for them.

“We’ve streamlined some things. We found a few places to cut some costs,” he said. “Our regular customers keep coming back because they like what we make.

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“I think we do a really good job of the things that we do and and we keep looking forward to the future.”

Jeff Nachtigall, one of the directors of Sugared & Spiced Baked Goods, is seen in his shop on April 9, 2021. Kirby Bourne/630 CHED

Part of that future is a revitalization of the alley in front of Sugared and Spiced.

Plans show pavement reconstructions, LED lighting upgrades, greenery and seating areas.

“We have been advocating to the city for revitalization of the alley between 103 and 104 Streets north of Whyte for a few years, as businesses have started to front the alley and need an accessible path to their businesses,” Klassen said. “The Backstreet project is a result of that work and we are excited to see it moving forward.”

Click to play video: 'Latest plans to improve alleyways as part of Strathcona Backstreet Project' Latest plans to improve alleyways as part of Strathcona Backstreet Project

Latest plans to improve alleyways as part of Strathcona Backstreet Project – Nov 22, 2019

The fundraising committee has applied for a grant that will be combined with city funds. Phase 1 of construction is set to start in the spring.

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For Nachtigall, it’s a perfect fit with his business.

“What original city block doesn’t need a bakery?” he said with a laugh. “We feel like we are an integral part to a vision that they had and that other people share.”

Read more: Old Strathcona Back Street concept shared with public, needs community fundraising to fully move forward

Just around the corner from the site is the newly renovated Strathcona Hotel, or The Strat, as it’s affectionately called in Edmonton.

The hotel was closed in the fall of 2018 and underwent extensive renovations. On March 29, the doors opened again as Leopold’s Tavern opened its first location in Edmonton.

A bartender at Leopold’s Tavern on Whyte Avenue pours a pint on April 9, 2021. Kirby Bourne/630 CHED

General manager Malcolm Rabb said there was one thing that drew them to Whyte Avenue, despite the struggles in the area.

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“The Strat,” he said. “The Strat was here, and you can’t really get more iconic than this building.”

Read more: Pints are flowing again as Leopold’s Tavern opens inside Edmonton’s historic Strathcona Hotel

Though brand new to the area, Rabb has been talking with other business owners and sees the turnaround happening on Whyte Avenue.

“The rebound is already here,” he said. “These businesses on the street are some of the hardest-working people that I’ve ever met, the people in the city are some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met and Leo’s is privileged to be here and to be part of this area and to say it’s revitalizing is awesome.

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“Nothing’s going to hold Whyte down and nothing’s going to hold Edmonton down and you’re going to see in the next couple of weeks as we move along, that this area’s going to keep growing.”

It’s optimism that Nachtigall shares. He feels Whyte Avenue is integral to Edmonton.

“Whyte Ave will always be Whyte. It’s not a fake destination. It’s the heart of the city.”

Click to play video: 'Leopold’s Tavern opens inside Edmonton’s historic Strathcona Hotel' Leopold’s Tavern opens inside Edmonton’s historic Strathcona Hotel

Leopold’s Tavern opens inside Edmonton’s historic Strathcona Hotel – Mar 29, 2021

Mark Wilson, co-owner of Vivid Print, echoes the sentiment. He says part of what makes the area unique is the relationship between business owners.

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“Being in the Whyte Avenue area, it’s lovely because there’s a lot of mutual support. Even in retailers who are competition to each other, are very supportive of each other,” he said.

“The clothing shops all get along, there’s a framing shop a block away that we often share businesses and customers both ways. If they do something better than we do, we’ll send them back and forth.

“It is a real sense of community on Whyte Avenue.”

But Wilson knows there are still some struggles facing those on the avenue as the world opens back up. Those who don’t want to change how they do what they do may have a harder time bouncing back.

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“Our consumer patterns of shopping have changed,” he said. “And a lot of people are now comfortable doing online shopping. So that will present one challenge. But that also means that what we provide as shopkeepers has to be unique and differentiated enough.”

Click to play video: 'Positive outlook for Whyte Avenue area says business association' Positive outlook for Whyte Avenue area says business association

Positive outlook for Whyte Avenue area says business association – Mar 20, 2021

That will work to the area’s benefit, though, he said. It has always been known for smaller, funkier shops.

But for the formula to be successful, he said, landlords are going to have to look at their business models differently.

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Wilson said his landlord has been really understanding during the pandemic, which has helped his retail store weather the storm better, but feels landlords are going to have to look at what they charge for their spaces moving forward.

“They can’t depend on trying to attract those chains to move into those spaces,” Wilson said.

“They’re going to have to sharpen their pencils and realize that perhaps part of the reason why revenue struggled previously is that the rents were too high to be sustainable for most businesses.

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“Even some of the national chains who ran their shops here ran them as loss leaders.”

One of the biggest spaces on Whyte Avenue was vacated prior to the pandemic when the massive Chapters book store closed its doors. After months of speculation, clothing and home goods store Winners confirmed it’s moving into the space.

The Winners on Whyte Avenue and 105 Street on April 9, 2021. Kirby Bourne/630 CHED

While shoppers have told the business association smaller shops are the reason they come to the area, Klassen feels the new name will bring some variety to the area.

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“What we find with Main Street districts is (visitors) come for those unique businesses, but then they wander around and they discovered other stuff. So maybe someone who comes down to seek out the latest new restaurant or coffee shop happens to walk by Winners or Shoppers Drug Mart and says, ‘Oh, I need to also grab this or that and maybe I’ll grab those things along the way,’” she said.

“I think there’s room for it all.”

Summer 2021 plans

Last summer, extended patios were installed for a number of restaurants and the city closed the north lane of the avenue to vehicle traffic to allow more room for pedestrians, as well as places for people to sit and visit safely during the pandemic.

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The idea is coming back for summer 2021, but this time the change will be seen on both sides of the street.

The space for pedestrians likely won’t be as big this year. Klassen said the avenue will likely be working with just the curb lanes on both sides.

“We’re working to build out some boardwalks, so almost like a temporary sidewalk, and then put in some seating, some flowers, things like that, so we can fill in some gaps where maybe there aren’t patios.”

Read more: Whyte Avenue businesses contemplate relaunch — ‘We’re going to need more space’

The business association will also be working with the city to make moving between the sidewalk and the street more accessible, as well as different structures to make it safer.

“We wanted to do a better job of putting in something that feels more purposeful of infrastructure and then also not just have pylons that people could easily drive through,” Klassen said.

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“We’re stepping it up to make it feel a little more semi-permanent this year and hopefully will be able to address some of those mobility and accessibility issues as well.”

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Advance care planning + Whyte Avenue accessibility' Health Matters: Advance care planning + Whyte Avenue accessibility

Health Matters: Advance care planning + Whyte Avenue accessibility

The business association is looking at ways to make some of the summer changes a more permanent feature in the future.

“We’re already pushing that agenda forward with the city to say in the next five or six years, it’s really time to reimagine Whyte Avenue as an entire corridor,” Klassen said.

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“We’re an economic powerhouse. We bring tons of tourism and tons of dollars to this city. And so we need to make it a space that people really feel safe and welcome to come.”

The city couldn’t say when construction on the extended sidewalk project would begin, but extended patios are already in place at some restaurants along Whyte Avenue.

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Grand opening for Whyte Avenue’s Raymond Block – Jan 17, 2019

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