Fort McMurray brewery shutdown sign of a struggling downtown, says owner

A Fort McMurray brewery closed its doors for the last time this weekend after a slump in the economy drove business down by more than 50 per cent.

'I fear that for many it's too late,' says councillor and business owner

The Wood Buffalo Brewing Co. would sometimes have a lineup out the door when it first opened. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

A Fort McMurray brewery closed its doors for the last time this weekend after a slump in the economy drove business down by more than 50 per cent.

Wood Buffalo Brewing Co. first opened in 2013. At the time there was often a lineup outside, just to get through the doors. The brewery is owned by Bearhill Brewing Co., which has other breweries around the province. 

One of Bearhill CEOs Brett Ireland said there were multiple factors leading to the shutdown, including a downturn in the economy and choices like not changing the menu.

"I think we maybe didn't do as good a job as we could have," said Ireland. "It's definitely an opportunity for us to take some lessons."

Ireland said they also noticed a drop in traffic because the majority of the population lives across the river from downtown in the Timberlea and Thickwood neighbourhoods. Those neighbourhoods have been developing restaurants and bars of their own, which can make it difficult to attract people downtown. 

Mike Allen says he's changing up his business model to try and keep the doors open. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

"It just wasn't enough to keep us going."

He said the company's other brewery locations in Jasper, Banff and Calgary are all doing well and haven't seen a similar downturn.

The Wood Buffalo Brewing Co. let the lease run out, and Ireland said if anyone is looking to lease the location it will be a turnkey operation.

We have never been slower.- Mike Allen, owner Campbell's Music

Ireland said he's focusing on the positives and moving on. "I am just hopeful that someone goes in there and has a wonderful opportunity."

He said he's happy to have been part of the community over the last few years.

The brewery isn't the only downtown business that's seen a slump in sales.

Mike Allen, municipal councillor and owner of Campbell's Music said his business has noticed a downturn.

"We have never been slower."

"We're working and changing our business model. We're doing everything we can to keep the doors open."

Campbell said he and his fiance would stop in at the brewery about once a week.

"Every time I went in there it seemed there was very little activity happening," Allen said.

"It's just disappointing. I understand their business decision, but I'm sad it came to that point where they had to make that decision."

He said he's trying to sell his products online to try and increase sales, but it's a struggle because there are extra shipping costs in and out of Fort McMurray.

The Wood Buffalo Brewing Co. closed its doors for the last time on Sunday. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

"It makes it difficult for us to compete in other markets."

Fort McMurray has seen the booms and busts, said Allen, but this one is different.

"This one is going to take a lot longer to recover from than it ever has before. I fear that for many it's too late."

Bryce Kumka, president of the community's Chamber of Commerce, said despite the downturn there are still new businesses opening.

"When you compare it to other parts of the province, I think we're doing reasonably well."

He said sometimes it's tough for the downtown businesses because "people tend to shop and do things that are closer to their homes," and most of the homes aren't downtown.

Kumka added that there are fewer people in Fort McMurray since the fire, and the people that are there tend to be more mindful of their spending.

"We really need to have a lot of focus and attention given to the downtown to bring people back."


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