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Short-term pain, says Lac La Biche County mayor for downtown business disruption

One councillor says businesses could stay open longer to offset shortfalls from construction

They might be able to see progress, but for right now, it's hidden behind the orange, steel barricades and deserted streets in front of their downtown stores.

Lac La Biche County councillor John Mondal has heard from business owners along the Lac La Biche Main Street who are worried they will see substantial revenue losses due to the Main Street Revitalization construction project that began on May 1. Some, he says, have told him they could lose half their profits as a full block of the downtown core has been barricaded to traffic as underground infrastructure is upgraded and surface improvements will be made.

"The business owners will lose 50 per cent of their business — and many have," he says.

Subsidy help?

The councillor, acting on behalf of some of the business representatives he has spoken with, is hoping to explore the idea of a short-term subsidy to the affected business owners during the construction project. The current phase of the project is slated to run until October. Next year, with the current phase completed, and as the overall project continues, another block of the downtown core will barricaded as work begins. The total revitalization project is expected to last three years.

"Is there a way for three months, that the business owners get a break, or something like that, to help them reduce costs? ... because they are losing business," Mondal said at the May 9 Lac La Biche County council meeting, suggesting a reduction in municipal utility rates for a few months. "At the end of the day, we need to help our businesses sustain. Times are already tough."

Mondal's suggestion was met with some caution by other councillors, with one questioning his statistics.

"You say businesses will lose 50 per cent of their business? I'd like to know where you got your numbers  from, what source, how do you know this?" quizzed councillor Darlene Beniuk.

Mondal responded that he got the numbers from the business owners who are concerned, but added that anyone simply looking at the construction area can see the problem.

"If you go now, it looks like a ghost-town on Main Street," he said.

Stay open longer, says councillor

Beniuk countered, offering her own suggestion to help with any supposed hardships ... asking businesses to stay open longer.

"I think opening longer hours would make up any losses... if they have any at all," she said recalling her own memories of a busy downtown. "At one time we used to be open Friday nights until 9 O'clock. The streets were full. There was no place to park. Now they are closed a five, some at four. Saturday's it's 10 to three."

She went further further, comparing businesses affected by the one-block Lac La Biche construction project to the many businesses affected by various construction projects that take place in larger cities like Edmonton every year.

"The City of Edmonton wouldn't be able to spend five cents anywhere else if they had to help all the businesses‚ monetarily or otherwise — along those stretches of construction."

Ups and downs

Others on council suggested that local businesses should look for their own solutions before looking for assistance.

 "A few of the businesses ... instead of working with us, or perhaps working against us, or complaining throughout, haven't made provisions for a rear access point, or haven't even put up a sign saying, 'Hey, we are still open," said councillor Lorin Tkachuk, explaining that as a business owner himself, he knows about adapting to challenges. "I have to be dynamic in my approach... You can't just expect people to chase you down for your business."

He said a few businesses are actually doing better than before, explaining that he's seen one downtown restaurant with busier lunchtime sittings. Councillor Colette Cunningham also said on a recent downtown visit to five stores, she didn't hear any complaints about business.

Monitor the situation

While several on council agreed that assistance for struggling downtown businesses could be an eventual option — on a case-by-case basis, and with the proper documentation — they also agreed more time was needed to see the real impact of the construction project. 

"We are nine days into this ... I'm not willing to hit the panic button right now," said councillor Jason Stedman, adding that he would like to see business results after a month or six weeks. At that point, if business owners can demonstrate their "undue hardships," council could consider individual assistance packages.

Mayor Paul Reutov understands the concerns, but explained that businesses and community members have had years to prepare for the project. 

"There have been town hall meetings, and this is something discussed and talked about for years and years and years... This is not something that was spurred on at the last minute," said Reutov, who is also a business owner in the community. "I understand the frustration, and perhaps loss of business, or whatever it might be — but the businesses that are impacted the most at this time will also be the businesses that will be beneftting the most when it is done."

Councillor Charlyn Moore hopes the community will assist any struggling businesses by shopping locally.

"I know it's going to be hard for some businesses. We have to ask our community to support their neighbours. We are asking neighbours and the community to work with each other," she said.

Council agreed to monitor the situation over the next few weeks and keep the idea of business assistance at the forefront. 

Rob McKinley

About the Author: Rob McKinley

Rob has been in the media, marketing and promotion business for 30 years, working in the public sector, as well as media outlets in major metropolitan markets, smaller rural communities and Indigenous-focused settings.
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