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Thunder Bay to decide if Fort William mall is help, hindrance to downtown redevelopment

Thunder Bay’s Victoriaville Centre’s future is under the microscope on whether it’s part of downtown Fort William’s urban revival scene.
Thunder Bay business owner and downtown activist Lori Paras wants to see the Victoriaville Mall (in background) demolished and Victoria Avenue restored.

The future of a struggling and costly downtown Thunder Bay shopping mall will be on the minds and agenda of south-end business owners and city councillors this fall.

Built in 1979, the Victoriaville Centre was the city’s unfortunate stab at urban renewal. 

Plopped down in the middle of Fort William’s central business district, it effectively severed a main artery and segregated Victoria Avenue into an east and west section.

Having never turned a profit for the city, devoid of an anchor tenant, and run under an unusual public-private operating arrangement — with taxpayers footing the bill for the upkeep — the city is reviewing various options, including its total demolition.

“Personally, I think it needs to go,” said Lori Paras, a businesswoman and downtown activist. “I think we need our street back.”

To Paras, the mall walls off Fort William into two separate business districts. She wants to see the throughway restored.

She remembers Victoriaville being a once-bustling place, but shopping habits changed with the arrival of large retail outlets in the Inner City area.

“Big box stores won, so mom-and-pop entrepreneurs had to rethink how they do business,” said Paras.

She sees an opportunity to stamp a new imprint on the downtown with boutique-type shops, street improvements and festivals.

“We have a retail revolution going on here. We can make our own identity.”

Paras is among an influx of entrepreneurs who’ve refurbished papered-up storefronts in Fort William’s core, attracted by cheap property values, modest rents, and the neighbourhood’s architectural character.

“I’ve always had an enchantment with Fort William. There’s something a little nostalgic and we’ve decided to take it up a notch.”

As the owner of a small antique shop, she’s expanding into a former furniture store on Victoria Avenue East, less than a block from the mall.

Inside, she’s renovating the 6,000-square-foot space into a European-style bazaar where she’ll rent vendor space for a booth or table by the month, week or day.

The Fort William core’s negative public image is a lot to overcome, she admits.

Shelter House, the city’s homeless shelter, is just blocks away and the area is home to many of Thunder Bay’s impoverished and its swelling Indigenous population.

“To say that everyone down here is drinking and drugging is crazy. There are a lot of moms pushing carriages. It’s a community down here and they need to be respected," Paras said.

Others must feel that way too, she said, judging by the half-dozen new businesses opening in the last six months.

Her former May Street digs are now populated by a Burmese mother and daughter who’ve opened up a restaurant.

“The more businesses that open down here, the optics will change.”

Demolishing the mall will be a $10-million pill for taxpayers to swallow, said Joel DePeuter, the City of Thunder Bay’s manager of realty services.

But it’s part of a larger conversation if the mall is a benefit or hindrance to recent redevelopment projects, which include the construction of a new court house, social services building, and grafting a new façade onto city hall.

The mall runs at an annual operating deficit of $500,000 and there are a slew of repairs needed, including $2 million to repair the skylights.

“It’s timely to look at what the public benefit is of operating the centre,” DePeuter said.

Most of the public feedback from a June forum and from more than 1,200 online respondents, favour the mall’s demolition.

Since most of Victoriaville’s tenant space is privately owned, revenue-generating opportunities for the city are limited.

DePeuter’s report to council in November will include recommendations based on the public input that, from a cost-benefit standpoint, the mall hasn’t been an urban revitalizer, “in fact, it might very well be doing the opposite.”

Tearing down Victoriaville makes little sense to local architect Ahsanul Habib.

“The mall is already there. Whether it was the right thing to do or not, the money was invested.”

Rejoining Victoria Avenue will do little to restore vehicle traffic downtown, he said.

With a view to conservation, Habib believes the mall can be repurposed.

Over 30 years, Habib has made his mark in Thunder Bay by finding new uses for landmark and heritage buildings, the conversion of the former McKellar Hospital into an upscale seniors’ home being one.

After attending an architects convention in Hamilton two years ago, Habib came away impressed with that city’s project-like approach and incentives offered to revitalize its once-derelict downtown.

He submitted a conceptual plan to close off the east end of Victoria Avenue to vehicle traffic and create a pedestrian mall, similar to local food markets in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

“The city said they liked my plan,” said Habib, but he’s heard nothing since.

“I want the downtown to succeed. I have invested in several buildings, plus I live in the area, and I’ve been seeing it go downhill every year since I moved here.”

As the owner of some prominent commercial and residential buildings, Habib said he has a hotelier ready to move into the historic 1929 Royal Edward Arms building, if the homeless problem can be addressed.

It would be Fort William’s first downtown hotel in many years.

“If we put the hotel there, this area will change.”

City Counc. Shelby Ch’ng said it’s evident Victoriaville hasn’t fulfilled its potential over its lifespan.

“The place is run-down, they’re buckets everywhere and it’s the same 100 to 120 people hanging out having coffee in the morning. It’s empty the rest of the day.”

Public opinion stands 80-20 in favour of its demolition, a viewpoint she’s leaning toward.

“I’m all for re-inventing old spaces but as it stands, I don’t think I can support keeping it alive,” she said. “Right now, we’re losing a half million dollars for something that doesn’t work.” 

As the owner of a bridal boutique in a building attached to the mall, she said, whether Victoriaville stays or goes won’t impact her business.

“If it becomes better used, and offers something to the community, than it would soften my argument about tearing it down.”

But she takes umbrage with those who suggest moving Shelter House would clean up the downtown’s image, saying there’s a role for the unfortunate to play in the core’s revival.

Some restored buildings are filling up fast, she said, but there remain empty storefronts with landlords who could be doing more to fill those vacancies.

As the chair of the Fort William Business District Business Improvement Area, Ch’ng said the downtown’s threatening image takes on a “larger than life” reputation. 

“I lived down here as a child, done business here and see so many positive things as people open to their eyes to the opportunity.

“I think that (negative perception) does still exist, and will always exist to those people who choose not to see this area for anything other than what they want to see. But I think that perception will change.”