Doing business in the Glebe

by Martha Bowers

Recently there have been some lively discussions about the health of Bank Street from Centretown through to south Ottawa. The situation in the Glebe is of particular interest to residents and business owners.

Bank Street in the Glebe has historically been known as a Traditional Main Street. This means that since Ottawa was being settled by newcomers, the street has been a mix of residential and business, small, street-level commercial enterprises with one- or two-storey apartments above. Small businesses that serve the surrounding community – from groceries to pharmacies to pet stores, banks, restaurants and pubs – have been located here for years. Over time the street, with its unique shops, has become a destination that attracts people from all over.

However, recently many businesses have left the Glebe and we can see evidence of this with closed storefronts and For Lease signs. What is causing this? Some say the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park has discouraged people from coming to the Glebe to explore the original Bank Street. Others say that the landlords have increased rents to the point that independent businesses cannot afford to continue to operate here. Or perhaps the demographic is changing. The fear is that Bank Street will become a generic strip where only the large chains can survive. We are already seeing this with the encroachment of McDonald’s and Boston Pizza into the neighbourhood. People are not going to come to the Glebe for these types of businesses when they can easily find them in other parts of the city and where there is free parking. And the more chains that come here will definitely change the character of the neighbourhood.

MoralaMiriam Rangel, who has owned Café Morala for some 15 years, has noticed a decline in business over the last few years, despite the café’s fine reputation for its quality coffee and original baked goods. She does have loyal customers who continue to support her. “I love my business. Morala is the people and staff who have sustained me over the years. That’s the reason I’m still here.”

But she says that the big events that come to Lansdowne do not bring new customers in. “Hundreds of people pass by but they don’t stop. And the locals don’t come out because the street is too busy and crowded during these events.” Rangel knows the community and her customers and recognizes new faces. She is well aware of the changes and hoped that when residents settled into Lansdowne they would start to visit the local businesses, but as far as she can tell they are not coming to Café Morala. Rangel says she is worried but not defeated – yet.

Doing businessWith high rent and all the other expenses, most small independent owners are struggling to stay afloat. But Paul Shields of Glebe Trotters, which is approaching its 25th anniversary, says he is doing well. Although the early years were difficult, he has worked hard and the store, with its high-quality products and knowledgeable staff, attracts customers from outside the Glebe and even the province.

“Retail is tough everywhere, not just in the Glebe, but the shoe business has a huge advantage here in Ottawa because of our four seasons. This means that we change our products four times a year, keeping merchandise fresh and bringing customers in to see the new styles.” He adds that with customer satisfaction, word of mouth is one of the best ways to bring in new shoppers. However he does not see spinoffs from Lansdowne. On game nights there are lots of window shoppers and his hope is that they may come back later. And, of course, there is the ongoing issue of traffic and parking, which are major deterrents to people coming to shop in the Glebe, particularly the aggressive parking control officers.

Shields agrees that empty storefronts are not a good sign of a healthy street and he says that it would be difficult to open a new store today. The shopping world is changing with online options, but service businesses such as hair salons and cafés may have a better chance of survival. “I love the area, I have a passion for my business and I thank the people of the Glebe for their loyalty,” says Shields.

Who knows what the future of Bank Street will be? Will it become a restaurant and bar strip like Elgin Street? Will it become a wind tunnel with buildings getting higher and higher? Will it become a ghost street that no one wants to visit? It is up to residents, business owners and the city to make decisions that will improve our community to make it an inviting, welcoming place in which to live, work and play. We all have a stake in this if we want the Glebe to thrive.

How can Bank Street revitalize itself? If you have ideas please send your constructive comments to the Glebe Report.

Martha Bowers is a Glebe resident, avid music, words, art and garden lover, and devotee of Morala coffee where she has been known to help out.

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