Ottawa

'We made it': Elgin Street merchants celebrate reopening

Elgin Street reopens after a year-long revitalization project. Which businesses survived? What strategies did they use? CBC spoke with merchants and managers and locals about what it was like to get through the biggest disruption most businesses will ever see.

Some moved on while others moved in during year-long shutdown

Owners and employees of Elgin Street businesses say they're excited for the street to reopen after over a year of construction. 0:33

At Perfect Books, manager Michael Varty is eager to turn the page on what's been an anxious chapter for the merchants of Elgin Street.

Monday morning marks the return of two-way traffic, and the end of the most disruptive phase of a $40-million revitalization project that turned the normally bustling retail and restaurant street into a dusty, desolate construction zone.

'There were times when it was a labyrinth. But you know, we got through it.- Michael Varty, Perfect Books

"We're happy to see the end of it. Happy to see all the fences down and the wide-open sidewalks and the flow of traffic again," Varty said. "There were times when it was a labyrinth. But you know, we got through it."

For more than a year, Elgin between Catherine Street and Laurier Avenue has been mostly off-limits to vehicles and bikes. Shoppers who braved the construction were forced to navigate narrow sidewalks and cross makeshift bridges to enter businesses like Perfect Books.

Now, the merchants and their customers can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Michael Varty is manager at Perfect Books. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Hard times

"It's been difficult for people to come to us," said Jared Shecter, a barista at Happy Goat Coffee.

He credits the loyal customers who kept finding a way to get to the café.

"There [were] people parking on the sidewalk, people parking in our employee parking in the back, so it's just been a real mess. It has been hard," Shecter said. "[But] we made it. We're done."

Christa Blaszczyk is co-chair of the I Dig Elgin campaign, and owner of two Elgin Street boutiques. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Well, not quite. Early in the new year, the work crews will return to connect businesses to the new underground utilities and remove hydro poles along the west side of Elgin. In the spring, there will be more closures to lay new asphalt, and to finish landscaping.

"It's just a question of how long it's going to go on and into 2020," said Gary McMillen of The Leading Note, a music store above The Manx Pub.

The Elgin Street revitalization project shut down all vehicle and cycling traffic through one of Ottawa's business independent shopping strips. CBC revisits the street to find out who survived, how they did it, and what the lasting impact will be. 9:57

Local businesses banded together to form I Dig Elgin, a marketing campaign to encourage people to keep coming during the construction. Campaign co-chair Christa Blaszczyk, owner of Elgin Street shops Boogie and Birdie, and The Gifted Type, like to think their efforts helped.

"It's always hard to quantify what could have happened if you hadn't done something. Whether restaurants or shops went down 10 per cent or 15 or [whatever] could have happened otherwise," she said.

Some doors closed, others opened

Not every business survived to see the end of the construction. Coffee shop Chez Moe, a Brown's Cleaners, Tokyo Shop, Boko Bakery, a pawnbroker and Pure Gelato all closed during the roadwork, as did Hooley's Bar, though it re-branded and reopened as Bonnie and Clyde.

Other businesses moved in during the street closure.

Meow Tea moved into Chez Moe's space. A head shop called Head HQ moved into the former Tokyo Shop. The Boko location has become Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake. One storefront sign says German Döner Kebab is "coming soon."

Ironically, the street closure and retail vacancies have created an opportunity: landlords stuck with vacancies were offering deals, according to Ryan Zhu of Meow Tea.

Elgin Street mainstay Pure Gelato was one of several businesses to close its doors during the construction project. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Jobs lost

Many merchants had to make difficult decisions to stay afloat. Some reduced their hours and cut back on part-time shifts.

It was a similar story at Parker Clean dry cleaners, said Paul McCormick, who let one employee go soon after the street closed.

"I wasn't busy enough to have her here. There were times where she'd be here an hour, or an hour and a half, for nobody."

Robin Coull is co-owner of Pot and Pantry, and co-chair of I Dig Elgin (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Robin Coull, co-owner of Pot and Pantry and co-chair of I Dig Elgin, put in a lot of solo hours at her store.

"It was a year where I didn't grow my staff or have those extra bodies in the store," she said.

A few doors down at Boogie and Birdie, Blaszczyk said she had to exercise extra caution when it came to stocking her store, knowing fewer customers would be dropping by.

"Maybe we didn't take a risk on something we weren't sure of this year."

Minoo Banaei of Bel Fiore took advantage of the construction to enjoy her first vacation in more than a decade. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

This, too, shall pass

But the surviving merchants are optimistic the hardest times are behind them.

Minoo Banaei of Bel Fiore put money aside before the shutdown to tide her over. She also closed her doors in August, and took her first vacation in more than a decade.

She credits locals with keeping things afloat.

"Thanks from bottom of my heart to the people who are living around here. Their support was amazing," she said.

'We are thankful,' said Zhimin Yang of Brown Loaf Bakery about the loyal customers who kept her business afloat during the construction. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Zhimin Yang of Brown Loaf Bakery also expressed her gratitude to loyal local customers.

"Everybody [came] to support us during the construction period, and we are thankful."

At Parker Clean, Paul McCormick taped a thank-you note to his front door, a message of gratitude to those who kept bringing him their dry cleaning despite — or perhaps because of — the dust, dirt and mud outside.

"It might be a slow transition to get people back," said Robin Coull of Pot and Pantry. "But hopefully everyone's really interested in seeing what Elgin looks like. Hopefully they'll just return to their regular route."

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