New Brunswick

History repeats itself: How downtown Fredericton is surviving amid recent closures

While business closures are considered a cyclical trend in cities across North America, there are elements to the recent closures in downtown Fredericton that are troubling to one expert.

It's not the first time a string of businesses have closed in the downtown and some say it won't be the last

Business has changed in downtown Fredericton over the past century and some say the recent string of business closures is part of that process. This photo showcases a view of Market Square, which shows Fredericton City Hall and the corner of Queen Street and York Street between 1885 and 1890. (Provincial Archives/P5-291)

As a musician performing in venues across Atlantic Canada and Quebec, Barry Hughes knows a good quality pub when he sees one.

And he's always had his sights set on running Dolan's Pub — it had reputable music, honoured his Irish roots, entertained a diverse group of people and it's where he met his wife, Karen Gibson.

"Parents talk about coming to Dolan's and now their kids, they can't wait to come to Dolan's when they turn 19," Hughes said.

So it came as no surprise when Hughes, his wife and brother, Cyril, took over the business in 2010. And this fall, Hughes along with staff and customers, will be celebrating the pub's 25th anniversary, a milestone that doesn't always come easy for businesses in downtown Fredericton.

Over the holidays, two prominent restaurants, the King Street Ale House and McGinnis Landing, closed up shop for reasons that still remain unclear. Tilleul Boutique, a women's clothing store on King Street, also announced its closure this week.

The downtown saw several businesses close in 2018, including Things, The Hippie Boutique on Regent Street, Read's, Second Spin Records, the Owl's Nest Book Shop and Damda restaurant.

If you don't have a thriving downtown, then you don't have a city.-  Dhirendra Shukla , UNB professor

The closures have rocked the capital city and left customers questioning the future of the city's downtown core.

"I was just saddened right off the bat," said Hughes. "I know having a business, just how stressful it is."

Barry Hughes is the co-owner of Dolan's Pub in Fredericton. He says the months of January, February and the beginning of March are challenging for his pub because people aren't out on the town as often. (Elizabeth Fraser/CBC)

Some of those stresses include paying rent, purchasing products, licences, fees, repair costs and paying staff.

"There's been lots of times over the past eight years when that bank account gets pretty low and the heart rate gets up," Hughes said.

2018 'not the norm'

While business closures are considered a cyclical trend in cities across North America, there are elements to the recent closures that are troubling, said Dhirendra Shukla, chair of the Dr. J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of New Brunswick.

The university professor said multiple closures in a short period of time have a greater impact in places like downtown Fredericton because the population is a lot smaller compared to cities like Toronto.

"It is disappointing and all this happening roughly at the same time makes it even more disappointing," he said.  

"That sort of says, 'There's something serious that happened in 2018 that's out of the norm and different and that needs to be deeply analyzed.'"

An aerial shot of the flooding in Fredericton's downtown this past spring, which temporarily closed businesses and affected homes across the city. (Patrick Morrell/CBC )

He said some of the factors include downtown road construction, which lasted several weeks over the summer, and historical flooding in the spring that temporarily closed some businesses in the downtown.

Other factors include WorkSafeNB premiums soaring to almost double what they were two years ago, increased minimum wage, and an aging and shrinking population with more young people leaving the province.

"Small things change the whole game for them [business owners]," he said.

Shukla said the recent closures send a signal that local leaders and entrepreneurs need to plan ahead to help small businesses thrive.

An ever-changing downtown 

And the issue needs to be fixed soon, Shukla said.

He said the city needs to come together and figure out how businesses in the downtown could've been better prepared for events like flooding and construction, which happen every year. He also suggested a "rainy day" fund that can be set up to help businesses that find themselves in these types of situations.

Construction on St. Anne's Point Boulevard disrupted several businesses in downtown Fredericton this past summer. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

"We need to plan for things that go wrong," he said.

Shukla said this will help mitigate some of these risks that will happen again in the future.

"Having a vital and a critical and a buzzing and a happening downtown is critical for the survival of any city," Shukla said.

"If you don't have a thriving downtown, then you don't have a city."

But it's not doom and gloom for everyone.

Coun. Bruce Grandy, chair of the city's development committee, said history has shown that businesses and the types of businesses will change throughout the city and its downtown. 

Edgecombe’s Carriage Factory on King Street in 1886. This was the biggest carriage and sleigh making business in Fredericton, employing about 30 men. (Provincial Archives/P5-385)

Right now, the city is working on projects such as the Officers' Square revitalization project and creating more residential space to make the downtown more appealing to pedestrians.

"I don't think anybody needs to panic about closures," he said. "I think it's an ebb and flow of change."

A 'generational explosion'

Matt Savage, president of Downtown Fredericton Inc., said there are about 17,000 people working in Fredericton's downtown everyday. He said 15 businesses opened last year in the city's downtown, which will also see the construction of two new office buildings in 2019.

Despite the recent closures, Savage said the downtown is still growing, describing it as a "generational explosion." 

"You're going to have closures; it's inevitable," he said, using the examples of Sears, Zellers and Blockbuster.

"All these businesses, they come and go," he said. "A lot of them, they just outgrow themselves."

Matt Savage, president of Downtown Fredericton Inc., says the city is facing a "generational explosion" and will see new businesses and development coming into the area. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Savage, who is also the owner of Savage's Bicycle Center, said some businesses could be impacted by customer service, which has changed over the years.

"In the past, it might've been a little more. You open your doors and people will come just because they had to," he said.

"That's not the case anymore. People have a lot of choice and they have options so we try to really adapt and do what works."  

The downtown bike shop has been around since 1897 and is considered the oldest bike shop in Canada.

The fire station on King Street, which is now Savage's bike shop. (Provincial Archives/4515)

Savage said he's grateful to be part the growing bike industry and the business tries to adapt to changing products, technology and business trends.

And he's always willing to try something at least once, like asking his dad in the early 2000s about starting a website for the bike shop.

"I approached my dad and said, 'Do you mind if I start a website?'" said Savage. "He said, 'That's a fad don't worry about it. I don't want anything to do with it. You do it.'"

Savage's has been expanding the business over the past few weeks following the closure of Bellboy Dry Cleaners.

But the business also has its share of speed bumps, competing with big business and websites like Amazon that attract customers. 

"They'll shop and say, 'Well, I'm buying it right now,'" he said. "These are the things you deal with in retail and you just smile and thank them very much and hope they come back."

Matt Savage, president of Downtown Fredericton Inc., feels downtown Fredericton is growing despite recent closures. 1:00

And even as Savage expands into the space previously occupied by the recently closed Bellboy Dry Cleaners, he said there's always a risk for small business owners. 

"Even when things are good, we're always on thin ice," he said.

"There's that scramble. You're skating along and it's breaking up behind you and it's freezing in front of you and you're trying to stay in that sweet spot."

A scary time 

Although the co-owners of Dolan's are always keeping track of their books, there are certain times throughout the year, like the winter months, when they keep their guard up.

"This is [a] scary section," Hughes said. "As soon as St. Patty's Day arrives, it gets us through right to patio season and then we're safe and then Harvest Festival comes and we're safe until January comes again."

While many businesses are closing in the downtown, the owners of Dolan's Pub will be celebrating 25 years of business this fall. But the milestone hasn't come without its own series of challenges. (Elizabeth Fraser/CBC)

Although he feels like the recent restaurant closures might be a coincidence, Hughes doesn't know why his downtown pub has lasted over the years compared to others.

It could be because of the longevity of the business, the live bands or because he puts himself in customers' shoes.

"I'm not a wizard businessman by any means," he said. "I use sensibility and logic and try to make the place look like I would want it to look if I was walking into a place."

About the Author

Elizabeth Fraser

Reporter/Editor

Elizabeth Fraser is a reporter/editor with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She's originally from Manitoba. Story tip? elizabeth.fraser@cbc.ca

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