3 More Businesses Leaving Downtown Cornwall Ontario – Yes It is Time for Change by Jamie Gilcig – August 1, 2014

3 More Businesses Leaving Downtown Cornwall Ontario – Yes It is Time for Change by Jamie Gilcig – August 1, 2014

going out of businessCORNWALL Ontario – In a recent Freeholder story Economic Development officer Bob Peters goes on about our amazing “growth” in Cornwall; but are we really growing economically?    The city cites new distribution centre jobs, but doesn’t count the loss of our call centres; nor does it focus on recent job losses at Union shops like Sensient Flavors, Phillips, or the other shut downs that impact so many better paying jobs in our area.

In downtown Cornwall we are in the process of seeing at least three doors shut down; Tweed & Hickory, Habitat (which is moving to Brockville) and Needle in a Haystack.  Others are struggling to keep afloat and Cornwall Square will have a huge empty hole as anchor tenant No Frills leaves the downtown core without a grocer.   Their other anchor tenant is Sears Canada who also are struggling.

Cornwall has agreed to give Smart Centres a bag of financial incentives to build in Cornwall; but who will pay for that?  Doesn’t that Corporate welfare put a larger burden on the business tax rate while they have to struggle to compete with the new stores?

habitat facebookI spoke with Rob Csernyik, the owner of Habitat about Cornwall and his store:

CFN: What attracted you to Cornwall and in particular opening up your business here?
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ROB: I was first attracted to opening up a business in Cornwall in 2009 when I was living in the West Island of Montreal. I was interested in opening a home decor store and felt that by opening in a small market, it would be more affordable to start up, that I could cater to an underserved audience and that I could grow the business more easily due to fewer direct competitors.
Some of the things that attracted me specifically to Cornwall were the size of the trade area, the mature population, the affordable commercial rents, the confidence of national retailers in opening new stores here and the upward trend in the development of the downtown area. I also liked that there were a variety of support systems for businesses like the Chamber of Commerce and the SBDC as well as other networking groups and organizations.
Downtown Cornwall appeared to have strong foot traffic, but after over six months here I can say that the baseline of foot traffic is actually quite low. For any new retail business to succeed here, foot traffic would have to improve dramatically. The fact that Downtown Cornwall is a transit hub makes it look like a lot more people are around “shopping” than there actually are. While downtown rents are affordable compared to a city like Montreal, they are high when you consider the low amount of foot traffic.
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CFN:  What was the concept of Habitat and what should Brockville be expecting?
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ROB: The concept for Habitat was an affordable specialty home decor store with a focus on colourful and contemporary items. In my experience visiting home decor stores in various cities across the country I found that a lot of them catered to high price points and that many of them carried the exact same stock. By bringing in goods from a wide variety of sources, I was able to achieve an eclectic and unique product mix that you couldn’t find elsewhere in the market. Like larger home decor chains that people love, items at Habitat were grouped by department and use and presented in a simple, modern setting. Unlike many smaller home decor stores, we kept a focus on the home instead of offering other product lines like giftware and clothing.
Brockville can expect a similar basic concept but there will be tweaks to the formula to reflect customer tastes including a branding change.
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CFN: Why are you switching from Cornwall to Brockville which has half the population of our fair city?
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ROB: Brockville had always been on my mind as a future market for Habitat, so it’s a natural progression to move the business there. I’d been actively researching the particular location I’m moving to since March. (Though it was originally viewed as a potential second location.) Even though Brockville is half the size of Cornwall, the trade area for Brockville is 100,000, their downtown boasts double the number of businesses of Downtown Cornwall and there is a greater amount of tourist traffic in their downtown due to the marina and the Thousand Islands.
In Brockville I found a great location at King Street West and Perth Street that will dramatically reduce my rent costs each my month compared to what I pay in Cornwall. When you partner this with the increased foot traffic within Downtown Brockville and the ability to benefit from the DBIA’s events and marketing, the option is extremely attractive. I would be remiss not to add that I have an option for part-time work with the Brockville store option that I lacked in Cornwall. This allows the business a bit more breathing room as it grows and helps to lower our breakeven requirement.
If I had April’s revenues in Brockville, I would need to increase the store’s traffic by only 60 people to reach breakeven. To increase those revenues to the breakeven point in Downtown Cornwall, I would need an 204 extra people to come in. Based on my calculations the first number is not unreasonable to achieve or surpass while the second would be virtually impossible given my experiences here in Cornwall.
I had been patiently waiting out the winter because January, February and March are the worst months for most retailers. Combining this with the fact that Habitat was a new business and the weather was consistently terrible, it was a nail-biting first few months in business. Though our numbers grew month-over-month, by the time the spring hit our customer traffic and sales dropped dramatically. Bucking all conventional wisdom, May was my worst month yet.
Without meeting key revenue benchmarks I had to start asking questions about the viability of Habitat in this market. I knew Habitat could not grow enough to justify staying in this location and with my lease renewal looming, I would have to move or close the business. Staying downtown would have solved none of our problems. Other spaces lease for comparable rates to what we currently pay and there would be no major difference in foot traffic. More affordable spaces in Cornwall had already been deemed unfeasible when I first scouted locations.
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CFN: What will you miss most about Cornwall?
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ROB: I’ve been lucky to meet some great customers here and I’ll miss having them pop by the store. Hopefully, they will come visit the new store in Brockville. I’ll also miss going to The Grind for coffee or getting giant sandwiches from Riley’s Bakery.
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CFN: What strikes you as some of the differences between Cornwall and Brockville?
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ROB: A lot of people I’ve spoken with seem to have a “Cornwall=Bad, Brockville=Good” attitude which I think is nearsighted and isn’t often grounded in anything specific. There are positive and negative points to any city. The reality of living somewhere or doing business somewhere often sits in the middle of those two extremes.
On some levels I don’t think it’s fair to compare the two downtowns. For instance, while Downtown Brockville does have double the businesses of Downtown Cornwall, Cornwall has two areas that function as downtowns (Le Village being the other) so there is obviously less density and foot traffic. As Cornwall isn’t located adjacent to the Thousand Islands, it’s also not realistic to directly compare tourism traffic.
What is a reasonable comparison, and, what is one of the key differences that has helped me make the decision to relocate my business are the events and marketing done by the DBIA in Brockville. When I think about how to get the level of foot traffic I need, it isn’t enough to just market myself, I need to be involved in collective events and promotions. In Downtown Brockville’s event and marketing plans I could see direct ways that my business would benefit.
I attended the annual general meeting for the Downtown Cornwall DBIA and while I think they do a good job in certain parts of their portfolio, I feel the events and marketing end has a lot of room for improvement. Downtown Brockville has eight major shopping events throughout the year in addition to smaller ones. Their calendar for the rest of 2014 is already set and business can make projections and plan sales accordingly.
I opened in Downtown Cornwall last December 7th and since that date I have seen no events or marketing come forth from the DBIA. Given the recent closures of several downtown businesses this needs to be a stronger component in their operations going forward. Events that are relevant to consumers are the best bet the downtown has to increase foot traffic in the short term. Both myself and Tricot Treat Imports cited foot traffic as reasons for closing up shop downtown within the last few months. I think the conversation needs to shift to instead of talking about how far the downtown has come to talking about what needs to be done to further improve it and to create a healthier environment for new businesses.
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Clearly we are failing as a city to help our own economy and downtown core while our well paid officials spout praise which really isn’t being truthful with the public.   When a savvy smart young business person invests in Cornwall and then decides to move shop only  an hour away to a city of half our population that should be the proverbial canary in a coal mine?
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When the CFIB and MoneySense keep ranking Cornwall at the bottom of their charts year after year that also should be a clue that there may be an issue as opposed to statements from our mayor and chamber president that it’s simply a problem with the ranking system.
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We had a downtown Farmer’s market that was very well received. I know this as we were a part of its success those first two years.    It literally was killed by Heart of the City’s Denis Carr and the DBIA.    Why did that happen?  Why was it pushed to fail?   It wasn’t hurting our city or costing much if anything?  And it brought people downtown on a Saturday morning which clearly isn’t happening now.
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Mr. Csernyik pointed to a lack of events by the DBIA.   Why is the DBIA all but invisible?  Why did they stop supporting Lift Off?   Why do they boycott this newspaper?  Why isn’t there more coverage of the DBIA in the media that they don’t boycott?
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There needs to be a clear plan and joint action between the city and downtown business instead of secret waterfront meetings between the mayor and the Federal government.
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Looking again at Brockville, when they had their growth spurt with big box stores near the highway it impacted their downtown core; but look at what they’ve done to rejuvenate it and look at their success.
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Cornwall needs more than flower pots and chairs in parking lots.
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Businesses need to be able to feel comfortable setting up shop.   Our permit department needs to either improve and adapt or certain staff need to be replaced.  Restaurants should never have to wait a year to open.   Businesses should not see events hurt while City Hall messes with their liquor license applications because of over zealous fire inspectors who own fire service businesses in contradiction to the city’s own conflict of interest policy.
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Mostly it comes down to wanting to improve things.    We in Cornwall collectively have to change our culture to attract business and talent rather than scare it away as more and more people leave.  It’s as simple as that and it starts with our own Chamber of Commerce, DBIA, City Hall.
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It clearly is time for some actual new blood.  Not just replacing one bobble head with another.
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Cornwall can be a place of opportunity; but not the way it’s being done today.  We need to attract young entrepreneurs just as much as we do other businesses.
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