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Elliot Lake businesses band together to rebuild

Exploring the aisles of The Algoma Store is like wandering into a department store of days gone by.
A few piles of rubble and this sign are all that’s left of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake after it was demolished over the winter. A new development is underway, and retailers are optimistic that it will rejuvenate the city’s lagging retail sector.

Exploring the aisles of The Algoma Store is like wandering into a department store of days gone by.

Stocked with suspenders, paintbrushes, contact lenses, shoes, spatulas and everything in between, the shelves offer up anything an Elliot Lake resident could need for the home.

Local, one-stop shopping is the concept behind the store. Opened by pharmacist Andrew Bennett last November following the partial roof collapse at the Algo Centre Mall, it serves as an antidote to the exodus of shoppers who have spent their money out of town since the mall was deemed derelict and demolished, said Adam Amyotte, the store’s manager.

Amyotte, who lost his job at The Bargain Shop! when the mall closed, had a clear mandate when doing the hiring: everybody who got hired on had to have been affected by the mall collapse.

“Unfortunately, Andrew couldn’t give all 450-some people back their jobs, but he was able to give 10 people back their jobs,” Amyotte said. “Everybody he hired was local, so we dealt with local contractors, and we even have some local suppliers we deal with that make local products. The whole core value was to build that wealth in the community.”

Amyotte was working the day the roof collapsed, and was acquainted with Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, the two women who died that day. His wife, son and stepdaughter were on the way to visit him at work when the tragedy occurred.

His truck was trapped on the roof, as well, but he said that was the least of his worries.

“I walked out of that building that day,” he said. “It really opened up my eyes.”

Now his focus is on bolstering the local retail sector—60 per cent of which was lost when the mall roof collapsed—by stemming out-of-town shopping. He finds it disappointing to see residents driving to Espanola, Sault Ste. Marie or Sudbury to spend their money when they could be supporting the local economy.

“We need Elliot Lake to be successful so we can stay here,” he said. “It just gets frustrating when people don’t understand the impact” that shopping elsewhere has on the community.

To combat that outflowing of resources, the Elliot Lake & District Chamber of Commerce has embarked on a unique shop-local program offering residents incentives to keep their money at home. The local newspaper features weekly profiles highlighting local businesses, and there’s a coupon section promoting deals at various retailers in the city.

Todd Stencill, the chamber’s general manager, said downtown traffic flow still hasn’t rebounded since the mall’s closure, and businesses are hurting.

Thirty-three agencies, national companies and local businesses had tenancy in the mall. Some have opened temporary locations, while others have closed their doors for good. The chamber has hired intern Lesley Kaross to follow through on a downtown revitalization program that took a back seat at the time of the collapse.

The program includes physical enhancement along the Highway 108 corridor leading into the downtown, as well as a marketing campaign that includes a June merchant block party that’s designed to entice visitors to the downtown.

“It’s starting to rebuild, but not quick enough,” Stencill said. “We need to get back to being the retail hub of the North Shore, so I think that’s going to play a big role when the new mall is built.”

Dubbed Pearson Plaza, the new mall is a $3.5-million, 103,358-square-foot shopping centre being developed by McCowan & Associates out of Barrie. The site preparation is currently underway and the developers should be on site this summer. The opening date is slated for next winter.

One of the tenants expected to be going into the new mall is the Foodland grocery store, which has set up a temporary location in a community hall. Owner Pierre Vaillancourt, whose store had been in the Algo mall for 25 years, said when the incident happened, he didn’t realize he’d never be allowed to set foot in his store again, leaving behind business documents and personal effects like family photos.

Instead, he set about providing water and food to the first responders on the scene. It was only after the enormity of the incident sunk in that he worried about his livelihood and that of his employees.

“That was my biggest concern when this happened—my employees,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘You and I are done, we’re bankrupt. But it’s the 55 employees.’”

It was a huge relief to Vaillancourt to later learn that parent company Sobeys’ insurance policy covered his employees’ salaries for the following six months.

Vaillancourt has chosen to keep on all his staff, but working out of the temporary location has been a challenge. He’s invested $1.5 million into the W.H. Collins Hall, which will have to be returned to its former state after he moves. With only a third of the space he had in his 27,000-square-foot store, Vaillancourt doesn’t have the same capacity for a variety of products, and storage is at a premium.

It’s not a money-making venture. But with plans to reopen in a new location, Vaillancourt also can’t afford to lose staff.

“Realistically, I should lay off maybe 30 per cent of the staff,” he said. “But you’re not going to get them back and we’re hoping to open in six to eight months.”

For Jamie Senese, whose Canadian Tire store will share a parking lot and entrance with the new development, the opening of the new mall can’t happen fast enough. Sales have dropped since last summer’s incident, and a general pall has fallen over the city.

“From a business standpoint, after the collapse of the mall, I think everybody took a hit in town because of the focusing on the mall and the people that were still in the mall, so it really hit the community hard,” he said. “It’s a very emotional thing to have that happen—it’s right in our backyard.”

His business was also affected on a more personal level, as one of his mechanics was the son-in-law of one of the deceased women.

Coming back from that kind of tragedy has been a difficult climb, especially when the ongoing public inquiry into last summer’s events has opened fresh wounds, but the tearing down of the Algo mall this past winter has helped, Senese said.

“The mall was old and now everything’s going to be fresh and new, so from that point it’s exciting,” he said. “It’s just a shame it had to happen that way.”