Tsawwassen Mills mall hoping to attract far-flung customers

Metro Vancouver's newest mega-mall is opening its doors this morning, but it remains to be seen if it will draw enough shoppers and workers for long-term success.

The mall is banking on a destination model, which has been successful in the Calgary and Toronto areas

Tsawwassen Mills opens on October 5. (Ivanhoe Cambridge)

Metro Vancouver's newest mega-mall is opening its doors this morning near the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, but it remains to be seen if it will draw enough shoppers and workers for long-term success.

Built on Tsawwassen First Nation land, the Tsawwassen Mills shopping centre will be the fourth largest in Metro Vancouver, based on its 1.2 million square feet of retail space.

But its location surrounded by farmland, far from any SkyTrain station and with limited bus access, means the mall's owner, Ivanhoé Cambridge, will have its work cut out attracting enough customers, according to retail consultant  David Ian Gray.

"It's not going to be a slam dunk," said Gray, who is the founder of Dig360.

"They're not going to be a convenience mall or mall for locals. Sure, locals will shop there, but for them to be successful, they're going to be what's known as a destination mall or a mall where people are going to make some pretty major time investments for their shopping trips."

The $600 million mega-mall features roughly $15 million in art. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Montreal-based Ivanhoé Cambridge is no stranger to projects of this scale — it runs two of the region's three largest malls, Guildford Town Centre in Surrey and Metropolis at Metrotown in Burnaby.

Furthermore, it's basing the Tsawwassen project on two similar 'Mills' malls, CrossIron Mills north of Calgary and Vaughan Mills on the outskirts of Toronto.

"We don't even talk about being, necessarily, a regional draw — we're a destination," said Ivanhoé Cambridge executive John Scott. 

"People come here come from great distances. We know that because they typically come less frequently, but they stay and they shop here a lot longer. They've made that trip, and they want to be here."

Ivanhoé Cambridge senior vice president of development John Scott says the megamall is based on other destination malls the company has built near Calgary and Toronto, where he lives. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Gray, who has done some consulting work for Ivanhoé Cambridge in the past, but hasn't worked on this project, points out that Tsawwassen Mills could attract people heading to and from Vancouver Island and possibly American shoppers looking to exploit the Canadian dollar when it's low.

Staffing an issue

But according to Gray, as well as struggling to lure enough customers for the huge project, finding enough staff could be a problem.

"One of the challenges they've already run into is attracting, broadly speaking, employees," he said.

"Generally. it's younger people that are employed in retail and shopping malls and, and some won't have cars, so they're looking for work that's an easy commute."

So in an effort to attract workers it is running an employee shuttle to the Scott Road SkyTrain station in Surrey seven days a week. Employees can use the shuttle for $2 a ride.

The mall's biggest tenant is the U.S.-based outdoor chain, Bass Pro Shops, which is using 180,000 sq. ft. of retail space.

The U.S. retail chain, Bass Pro Shops occupies Tsawwassen Mills' largest store, which includes an aquarium and ornate wilderness-inspired display. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"This is the very first store that we're opening up in British Columbia, second store in Western Canada beyond Calgary," said general manager Gerry MacIntyre, who added that it wasn't easy getting enough workers.

"We've lost a few people to the other locations in the mall here," he said.

"It was an uphill battle out of the gates, initially. You know, we had a very good hire; the quality of people we've been getting from the local towns is absolutely amazing, and we're just about to capacity right now."

Gerry MacIntyre is the general manager for Bass Pro Shops Tsawwassen branch. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Scott acknowledged staffing is a challenge, but he downplayed the struggle in finding enough people.

"The bottom line is, you know, 3,000, 3,500 people is a lot of people and it comes with its challenges, but we're in great shape," he said, adding that about a third of the jobs will be full-time.

The heart of the mall is the 1,100-seat food court. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
Much of the artwork in the mall plays on Indigenous themes but was created by a non-Indigenous manufacturing process involving design firms, with First Nations consultation. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker