• Susan Flanagan

All I want for Christmas is a Supermarket | The Kids are Alright | Dec. 11, 2012

All I want for Christmas is a supermarket

Churchill Square has been good to me. As a child I once picked up a $20 bill on the floor at Ayre’s and Giant Mart. Dad made me pass it in to the administration office. But lo and behold, a week later we got a call saying no one had claimed the money and it was mine. $20 was a gold mine back then. Who says good deeds are not rewarded?

From Ayre’s and Giant Mart and Macy’s my consumer days continued at places like Alpine Country Lodge where I have been shopping for over 25 years. I remember my first Woolrich coat with the red plaid interior. I simply could not wear that thing out. I ended up giving it to my Colorado friend Alycia way back when we lived in Japan and she told me she only recently passed it along.

That same Alycia just served her family smoked salmon for American Thanksgiving that I picked up at Paddy Fitzgerald’s fish shop and brought to oceanless Colorado. I got my fresh produce for our Canadian Thanksgiving from Jocelyn Fagan’s veggie truck. Every Sunday I meet my Running partner at the Running Room. In the evening, if I so desire, I can walk to Ben’s for a drink and drop my dry cleaning along the way. That’s a lot packed into one square.

Churchill Square has provided more than places to shop. It’s also provided employment. In high school I worked at Auntie Crae’s next to Shoppers in the main building. No. 2 has been employed at Big Bite for two years. My husband even worked in the Square for a few months when we first moved home from Japan.

And goodness knows how many lunchtime meals have been eaten by my children and other Gonzaga students. From the Back to the Future-ish main building to Winston Churchill’s bust standing guard across the street, Churchill Square looks nice too. It is the place it was designed to be. Reasonable housing with all amenities just a few minutes’ walk out the door. Everything is there for both seniors and the nearby MUN students, both groups of whom often don’t drive – doctor, dentist, prescription-filling pharmacy, post office, bank, hairdresser, coffee shop, pub, restaurants; both quick and easy and upscale. Everything that is - except for one gaping absence.

Ever since last spring Churchill Square has been without a supermarket. Seniors and university students were the biggest frequenters of the SaveEasy that used to be in the void between Scotiabank and Deluxe Drycleaners (despite the fact that its prices were higher than in some of its sister Dominion Stores).

I know the question has been kicking around for a while, but why is it that another grocer has not set up shop in Churchill Square? Is it because Loblaw can effectively prevent competitors from taking over the space they no longer occupy? Is it not economically feasible? Is it not wanted?

I doubt the latter is the case. A supermarket is definitely wanted. As a petition signed by hundreds earlier in the year indicated. But Loblaw has broken no laws and presumably are paying taxes on their vacant sites.

One thing is certain, we can’t sit back and expect profit-driven companies to act in the best interest of their competitors.

And unfortunately Loblaw knows too well that convenience trumps anger every time they pull out of a strip mall and within months, upset customers are beating down their box-store door, filling carts with No Name and George Fresh. I was determined to boycott Loblaw’s new box stores when they closed down Newfoundland Drive – that’s where my mother always shopped. She could walk there from her house. My boycott was short lived because one day I spotted half price Quaker Oat Squares in the flyer and off I went, tail between my legs, to pick up a couple of dozen boxes.

Both the Newfoundland Drive and Elizabeth Avenue East Loblaw locations closed when Memorial Stadium Dominion opened. It was around that time that Loblaw’s Dominion in Churchill Square became a Loblaw SaveEasy. Now, like Newfoundland Drive and Ropewalk Lane locations, it’s nothing. Thank God the Elizabeth Avenue East site was torn down or that would probably be another eyesore.

Remember when Kathie Hicks of Spirit of Newfoundland Dinner Theatres approached Loblaw to lease their building in Churchill Square last May? No sirree, Bob, they said. Especially considering she was intending on opening a healthy market that might –gasp - sell food. The aforementioned petition pleading with Loblaw’s to either open another supermarket on the site or allow someone else to, went nowhere.

If we, the people of St. John’s, want change, we have to work together to push for city bylaws and provincial laws preventing companies from leaving buildings vacant for extended periods. If we can’t get government to take action by passing a law to take care of the problem, then we can suggest high tax penalties if stores are left vacant. We could use the same concept as the offshore oil land bids – you bid on the land, agree to spend so much money in exploration; if you don’t, you lose the land. Same for retailers: if you don’t use the land, you pay higher taxes or lose it.

When I told my husband I spoke to the director of corporate affairs for Loblaw in Atlantic Canada to ask him what plans they have for the former EasySave property, my husband responded: “Let me guess, he said they’re looking at all their options.”

My goodness, my husband is a brilliant mind reader.

“We’re assessing what makes most sense for us,” says Mark Boudreau about that property. We’re exploring all our options… We’ve got a lot of options on the table. We’re actively looking at options.”

When I asked Boudreau about the proposal put forward by Kathie Hicks back in May to lease Loblaw space in Churchill Square for a market, here’s what he answered: “I’m not aware of that particular proposal.”

Boudreau denies Loblaw continues to rent empty spaces to ensure competition does not move in. And who am I to know if there have been any other tenants willing to pay full value of the rent? And why would Loblaw want to rent out their space at a loss to allow a competitor in? I could argue because it’s just plum not fair to leave buildings vacant in otherwise pleasant urban spaces. But until there’s a city bylaw or provincial law in place preventing retailers from keeping space empty for long periods, then it’s tough noogies for me. If, however, that is what the people want, then we should speak up and lobby government to do something to prevent it.

Boudreau did say the leases on both the Newfoundland Drive and Ropewalk Lane properties expire early next year and then it will be up to the owners of the properties to choose who to rent to. Let’s just pray they don’t renew Loblaw’s lease.

“We embrace our role as a leading corporate citizen,” says the Loblaw 2011 Corporate Social Responsibility Report. The Loblaw 2011 annual report contains a section called “Ethical Business Conduct” which states:

“The Code reflects the Company’s long-standing commitment to high standards of ethical conduct and business practices. The Code is reviewed annually to ensure it is current and reflects best practices in the area of ethical business conduct. All directors, officers and employees of the Company are required to comply with the Code and must acknowledge their commitment to abide by the Code on a periodic basis.”


I suggested to Boudreau that Loblaw only has the bottom line in mind and doesn’t give two hoots about non-automobile-owning seniors and university students who could walk to their store. His response: an invitation to meet with him in January or February when he comes to St. John’s to create some relationships.

I am aware Loblaw is a for-profit company and has the right to close a store that is not bringing in the earnings. I know they have the right to force buildings to remain vacant in otherwise pleasant public places just to keep out potential competitors. But should they have that right?

Maybe, like the Grinch, the heart of Loblaw executives will grow two sizes this Christmas and net year they will allow someone else to update and move into their eyesore of a property. Otherwise let’s pray they go back in there themselves and live up to their corporate mumbo jumbo ethical business code.

Susan Flanagan is a writer who doesn’t buy diamonds but even so Pat Thompson greets her at the door of his shop with a broad smile, just as if she had dropped a million dollars into his place. Susan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

Loblaw feedback:

John in Whitbourne writes: “Can you name another supermarket in the area that requires you to pay for parking? I think that is a killer for the location.”

RATTER writes: “You did not have to pay for parking at the Dominion at Churchill Square. You parked free in the space between the dry cleaning and Bens. I shopped there when it was known as Ayre's Supermarket, then Ayre's Dominion and then Dominion. We need a supermarket in Churchill Square.”

Nora writes: “Yes! Yes! Yes! I was a loyal Dominion/Save Easy customer as there was never anyone there… it was fabulous – even if I had to plan 10 meals for a seven-day week because they invariably didn’t have something basic I needed, like chicken...

And memories!!! I have half a pupil in my right eye after walking into a broken piece of glass in Giant Mart. I bought my mother a tacky “Happy Mother’s Day” plate at Hunt’s when I was about 10 which I still have. And bought a new outfit at Ayre’s for a Christmas Dance at (Holy) Heart …”

Sean writes: “I live near Churchill Square, and we sorely miss having a grocery store there. My wife works nearby and walks to and from work. We used to shop there with our two kids in a stroller last year before it closed and she would stop in and get a couple of things on her way home from work. Now we have to get in the car any time we want a few items. These big box stores are making us more and more car dependent, which is bad for the environment, bad for our health (less walking), and expensive from a tax point of view (we need more roads and traffic lanes) and from a personal point of view (we need two cars when we might have been able to get away with one).”

Community grocer writes: “It would be a wonderful location for a small community store like Coleman's or Belbin's--a store with fresh local produce and meats, really good home-style baking and friendly staff. An old fashioned lunch counter would be nice too. The students, families and seniors in the area would love it.”

David writes: “Isn't it lovely how the wealth of oil money has moved townies like Susan to wallow in their nostalgia for old St. John's? Note to Susan: the rest of Newfoundland is still impoverished, can't buy a fresh apple, and struggles to make ends meet. So please continue to enjoy our oil and lament your quality of life struggle under the nouveau wealth....we aren't.”

Dragonfly feedback:

Shirley Newhook writes: “I just reread your "dragonfly" article from (the) paper....and the tears flowed again. What a beautiful item. I've been a long-time member of the Fluvarium board of directors and know what magic Bob can create when he shares his knowledge with young people (I've been on some of his tours). How lucky we are in this province to have this facility...and the staff to share it. Thank you for reminding us. Merry Christmas and warmest wishes for the season.”

Jane writes: “Someone close to me was inspired to send me your story Susan. Thank you so much for sharing! It is wonderful to be pinched every now and again in our hustle and bustle to realize that each of us in our own personal 'circle of life' does something to touch the lives of others. Tag...Greetings Ros...when I hired Bob many moons ago at the Fluvarium...I've had a smile in my heart ever since....truly a 'special' mentor of nature...and the circle goes on...again, thank you Susan. Gracious wishes to all and your families this season.”

Leonie writes: “Susan just read your beautiful article todays paper, Dec. 4th. I really enjoyed it. And it didn’t surprise me when I read Fr. Puddester’s definition of life after death. He was my Parish Priest at one time and I always enjoyed his wonderful sermons.”

Fluvarium Bob writes: “Honored for the comparison to Miss Frizzle, though I’m envious of her flying bus! In November, I celebrated my 20th year of working here at the Fluvarium, and over that time have, during moments of reflection, have often drawn on the connectedness of nature to the human experience. I was touched by your story, and I thank you for sharing it with your readers. I often tell my summer staff, usually young MUN Biology or education students that what we do here at the Fluvarium “ain’t rocket science,” but it has value. It can’t be measured monetarily, or with a finished physical entity, for we provide an experience. I always hope that the experience in some way resonates with children and adults alike. It obviously did with you! Some years ago, at the time of my father in laws passing, my (wife) and I used a similar experience with a butterfly to try to explain to our young boys the concept of death. Our connection to this earth is greater than we think. Thank you again Susan, God Bless”

Rosalind writes: “(The) Story of "what a Dragonfly taught me", meant so much to me in 2 ways, one, Bob at the Fluvarium is my husband and he inspires children and adults of all ages of the circle of life and two, I also lost my Dad and the connection between the dragonfly and life after is very warming. Thanks for sharing this Susan.”

Gordon writes: “I have always loved the story of the dragonfly. I now have a dragonfly tattoo in memory of a loved one. There is also a storybook for children, "The Dragonfly Door" which tells this story to help children understand death and loss. Thank you for sharing.”

Mike writes: “An absolutely beautiful, metaphorical column yesterday. I strongly recommend that you read the classic short story by James Blish, entitled 'Surface Tension', originally published 1952, reprinted many times in various anthologies. Probably available online for free somewhere. As you can probably guess by the title, the story will remind you of your metaphor of the dragonflies breaking through the surface of the pond. One of the most memorable reads of my life.”


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