An ode to Centre Square Mall

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Those of us with a few grey hairs might remember a time when malls were as much a part of our nation’s infrastructure as highways and sewer systems.

Where else could you get a letter of the alphabet shaved into your head, listen to your favourite band’s CD, eat large quantities of fast food or contemplate baggy jeans in a department store fitting room?

Yellowknife has its share of them, including Centre Square Mall, which holds the notable achievement of being the largest shopping centre in the NWT.

Once it was thriving. Now it is not.

It’s safe to say the happy shoppers who witnessed its opening in 1989 would be shocked to hear that the mall is now discouragingly untenanted.

But here we are. The hulking space has become the sick man of downtown Yellowknife where retail vacancies remain stubbornly high and shoppers are thin on the ground.

According to a business incentive strategy released by the city, 26 per cent of the space in the YK Centre and the Centre Square Mall was vacant in 2015.

This vacancy rate dwarfed the figure for downtown as a whole, which sat at 7.8 per cent.

It is hard to tell whether high vacancy rates caused shoppers to disappear or vice versa but it’s clear that fewer stores means there is less reason to visit the mall.

Centre Square’s hallowed halls of consumerism are not the only ones that are suffering. Shopping centres are dying across the country, and indeed the world.

From Mount Pearl Square in Newfoundland to Northtown Mall in Alberta and places in between, 15 Canadian malls are officially dead, according to deadmalls.com.

There are many reasons for this mighty retail death knell but it’s safe to say the first blow came with the arrival of big-box stores such as Walmart and Canadian Tire that sell merchandise en-masse at discount prices.

The second blow came with the rise of e-commerce and people love to shop online. In December 2017, e-commerce accounted for nearly $1.9 billion or 3.4 per cent of total retail sales in the country, according to Statistic Canada, suggesting annual growth of about four per cent from 2016.

It would be easy to blame Centre Square’s decline on the usual suspects: the homeless and loiterers.

Much ink has already been spilled on how retailers have fled the homelessness crisis unfolding in front of their businesses. And it is true that the city’s street people have left an indelible mark on Centre Square – where else in this country do you have to ask for a key to use a mall washroom?

But the fact of the matter is that Centre Square has been in trouble for decades.

That said, despite years of negative press, the empty storefronts and social ills downtown, there are still retailers who want to set up shop there, including some very notable ones.

Tim Hortons opened a kiosk inside the mall in 2017, and now another fast food company, New York Fries, has announced it would like to open a location in the mall – if the right franchisee comes along.

The desire to be located there presumably stems from the same desire that got the mall built in the first place – to be somewhere warm where people are likely to frequent, and hopefully, shop.

Of course, filling up Centre Square with fast food joints is not the answer. As we pointed out earlier, malls in general are failing.

What’s needed are more institutional anchors: government service centres, tourism services, a Dene cultural centre – occupants not in competition with big box stores and online retailers.

A tantalizing question remains where to put a polytechnic university if it ever gets built. Presumably it will be downtown.

It’s not like there is a lack of potential parking or space for additional buildings. The city owns four adjacent lots, all vacant and for sale.

The elephant in the room, or should we say, in a province far, far away, is the mall’s owners. It has two of them. Holloway Lodging owns the upper level of the mall and Slate Asset Management owns the bottom level.

There is little evidence to indicate the two sides have ever co-operated on anything or with anybody else. Nor is there evidence that they actually care about their mall or in downtown revitalization.

Until they’re onboard, hopes for improving this blighted block remain grim.

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