By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Sitting behind his counter beneath a sign advertising 40 per cent off, Wyatt Waters’ face carries a certain degree of sadness for which there is good reason. After seven years in Morinville, Waters will be closing his GOBIKE business in a couple months, a business that has long supported community events, most notably and ironically Waters was one of the main people that lobbied for the town’s skateboard and bicycle park.
GOBIKE is the latest in a string of business closures in town and will join fellow 100 Ave. retailer Brightside Hobbies and 100 Street businesses Fields Department Store and Movie Gallery in vanishing from Morinville. Although the latter two were corporate closures, the loss of four businesses in town so closely on the heels of one another is something that Waters thinks the town needs to take some responsibility for.
“I don’t think they’re doing a very good job of representing the businesses here,” Waters said, adding he felt Morinville lacked variety in its business offerings with far too many liquor stores, restaurants and bars dominating the landscape. “It’s not a home town. You can’t go down town to a meat market. My brother lives in Vegreville and now there’s a Wal-Mart and a Canadian Tire, but downtown they have all sorts of things there.”
Waters said he felt that Morinville is more concerned with increasing its tax base through the development of more housing than looking after the business in town, something he believes is the wrong approach. The long-time businessman said he felt that property taxes should be tripled or quadrupled on undeveloped lots along 100 Ave. to encourage owners to either develop the properties or sell them to someone who would.
“One of the big things that I’ve had a problem with is being able to find a proper retail space,” Waters said, adding that his present location was too small for a bicycle shop and that attempts to encourage developers to build new retail condominium spaces have not bore fruit.
But Waters’ main problem has been in finding enough customers to keep the doors open, a situation that has led him to make the hard decision to wind down his business later this summer. But Waters said he was grateful for the regulars who have supported him over the past seven years.
“I’ve had lots of good customers over the years,” he said, adding that the problem has been that too many people are swayed by the often mistaken idea that big box retailers are cheaper than a small town bike shop. “People are brainwashed into thinking that’s the place to go.”
More support needed
It is a situation that Morinville and District Chamber of Commerce President Sheldon Fingler is well aware of and something he believes needs to be addressed in tandem with municipal government.
“The chamber and the town have to work on developing a real economic development plan because what we’re missing is a true economic development plan for Morinville,” Fingler said, adding that having been involved in Sturgeon County’s economic meetings he has become aware of things happening in the region that will translate into more economic opportunities for Morinville. But Fingler said that while upgrader development in Alberta’s Industrial Hartland will create opportunities for new business, it won’t bring back those the community has already lost or are in the process of losing.
The chamber president said that over the past couple of years the business organization has been focusing on restructuring and reorganizing, but is now on course to move forward with making things happen in the community.
“Our big focus is going to be shop local,” Fingler said, noting that people travelling to St. Albert to buy a bike at a box store are missing sight of the bigger picture. “I think they’re losing sight of the fact that the businesses in our community are the same businesses that are sponsoring their soccer club. So when their kid is wearing their soccer jersey as they’re running across the field, yet they’re not supporting that local business.”
Fingler said both the Chamber of Commerce and local business need to make residents aware that local businesses supporting the community makes the community.
“When people go to the city and make their buying decision solely on saving 10 or 15 per cent, possibly, they’re losing sight of the fact of everything else that local business does for our community,” he said. “It’s part of our tax base; it’s part of our support network, and when you’re supporting out of our community you sometimes lose sight of the fact that the people in the businesses in the community are supporting you, whether it’s directly or indirectly.”
But while Fingler would like to see more residents supporting Morinville businesses, he would also like to see the community’s businesses supporting one another to a greater degree.
“It should start with our residents, but even our businesses in our community have to do as much as they can to support each other,” he said. “One of the things we have to do is we have to go as a group and find new ways of getting initiatives from the town. Our tax base – business vs. residential – is way off of where it should be. We need more business in the community.”
Economic development on the horizon
Morinville Mayor Lloyd Bertschi said economic development is something that is on the town’s agenda this budget year.
“There’s no question in my mind that that should be a primary focus with the council,” Bertschi said. “To that end we have allocated some monies in the budget this year to move forward with a branding awareness marketing campaign, as well as town branding. So that should help bring awareness of the community to the community.”
The mayor said Morinville does not currently have a full time economic development person, but that money had been allocated in this year’s budget to hire people. Other initiatives on the horizon include taking a look at Morinville’s downtown along 100 Ave.
“Now that we have 100 St. done, we’ll turn our attention to 100 Avenue because we recognize very clearly that for a downtown to be successful it needs to look nice, but it also needs to have a thriving business community.”
Bertschi said that as Morinville works on its Municipal Development Plan over the next year to year-and-a-half, it will be reviewing ways to make Morinville’s downtown more sustainable. Working more closely with the chamber to encourage people to shop locally is something Bertschi said is likely to be in the town’s future.
“If you want to have more stores here, we have to do more shopping here,” Bertschi said.