Optimism remains as winter approaches for pandemic-struck Whyte businesses

As the COVID-19 pandemic closes some Whyte Avenue businesses for good — and keeps many storefronts operating at limited capacity —  businesses in the area are grappling with the growing uncertainties of the winter ahead. 

Nearly a dozen Old Strathcona businesses have closed since April but more are set to move in

A 'For Lease' sign sits on the windows of a former Starbucks location along Whyte Avenue, a sign of current vacancies in the area. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

As the COVID-19 pandemic closes some Whyte Avenue businesses for good — and keeps many storefronts operating at limited capacity —  businesses in the area are grappling with the growing uncertainties of the winter ahead. 

Nearly a dozen of the area's 600 businesses have closed since April, including Army & Navy, the Billiard Club and The Funky Buddha.

Many of them were restaurants, clubs or bars.

For Ben Sir, general manager of The Buckingham pub, the closure of the mainstay Empress Ale House was an eye-opener.

"To see the positive impact that they've had on the community and how abruptly that all changed, that one impacted me a lot," Sir said.

The Buckingham has faced challenges since it reopened in May. Capping the number of patrons allowed in at a time to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has been hard on business, Sir said.

The bar is currently operating like a vegan restaurant. Prior to the pandemic, it operated like a nightclub and on the weekends, the dance floor would be full.

Sir said when the place is full now, it serves about 50 to 60 people. On a normal summer, the bar would often be packed with a crowd of 200.

He said he's most concerned about the end of the season.  When the summer fades and the temperatures drop, it will lead to the inevitable closure of the patio and its extra seating capacity.

"It's going to be even more challenging and it's naive to think that other places won't shut down," Sir said.

"What does Whyte Avenue look like after?"

Ben Sir, general manager of The Buckingham on Whyte Avenue, is cautiously optimistic as bars and restaurants have shut down in the area during the pandemic. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Cherie Klassen, executive director of the Old Strathcona Business Association, said the loss of businesses in the area is less extreme than she had expected.

The number of closures is similar to the usual attrition rate in the area.

A number of new businesses are set to open this year and that will put Whyte Avenue on a positive trajectory, she said.

"We have an opportunity to really shape Whyte Avenue in terms of what we really want it to be going forward," Klassen said. "Instead of just being at the risk of the market, we are going to be actively recruiting businesses and working on positive new developments for our area."

Klassen said leasing agents have told her Whyte Avenue was the hottest submarket in Edmonton this summer. She chalks this up to a walkable main street, diversity of businesses and an eclectic, quirky vibe in the area with plenty of hidden gems still in business.

Some new businesses set to hit Whyte Avenue later this year include retailers like Elements Outfitters and Kit and Ace.

The Army & Navy building had been in Old Strathcona for decades before shutting its doors permanently this spring. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

In the case of some businesses like the Army & Navy, which stood on Whyte Avenue since the 1950s, Klassen said problems prior to the pandemic led to their closure.

"When we see businesses that were already struggling in a difficult marketplace and then one added kick at them, they're going to be the first that are going to struggle," Klassen said.

What Old Strathcona needs to focus on going forward, Klassen said, is supporting their nightlife and hospitality industry, especially heading into the winter. She said she hopes to see new ideas for winter in the neighbourhood and more patios open after the summer ends.

An old favourite expected to reopen

The long-awaited revamp to the Old Strathcona Hotel is also expected to open to the public this fall.

Nathan Raju of Beljan Development said the pandemic hasn't had a negative impact on the hotel's renovations. Leopold's Tavern is still expected to move in, Raju said, adding that their tenants have been successfully managing through the muddy waters of COVID-19.

But more national retailers in the neighbourhood and a demographic shift of residents is changing what the area has to offer going forward, Raju said. While the avenue has long been a nightlife destination with a young demographic close to the University of Alberta, newer developments have brought more families to the neighbourhood.

"A lot of more multi-family developments have taken place on Whyte Avenue, which means that a lot more people are on Whyte Avenue for all hours of the day and they are not really there just for the evenings," Raju said.

As for Sir, he's interested to see how the area changes and develops over the year.

When it comes to the The Buckingham's future, he said management have to get creative and work with other businesses in what's expected to be a challenging fall and winter season.

"We will come out of this as positively as we can and support one another in the process."

With files from Natasha Riebe


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