After 24 years in business on Main Street Newmarket, Fourth Dimensions Comics owner Steven Gilbert is departing unhappily.
He decided to close up shop at the end of April rather than face a rent hike.
As he prepares to go, Gilbert said he is critical of how the town is managing the street, and he has heard from other store owners feeling the same way.
“I’ve had many private conversations with fellow retailers and a couple of restaurant owners,” he said. “I’ve never heard as much vitriol."
Newmarket’s Main Street has seen turnover, with longtime stores closing and new ones taking in their place. As the new Postmark Hotel prepares to open this summer, concerns have emerged over parking, traffic and some businesses getting forced out. Other businesses like Cafe Hesed have also described rent increases and landlord disputes as factors.
One of Main Street’s newer businesses, Goblets and Goblins, decided to make the move out to start the year. The gaming store sought more space for its customers, and owner Eddi Rayle said parking concerns have also been a frequent complaint.
The space they are moving into will be twice as big, he said, for only a 15 to 18 per cent rent increase compared to their previous Main Street location.
Main Street is “expensive for what you get,” Rayle said, adding their informal surveying found very little in walk-through traffic. “Most of the people who came to our store sought us out, have heard of us. So being on Main Street wasn’t much of a benefit.”
The addition of the boutique hotel is good for the street, Rayle said. But addressing the lack of parking, as well as increased traffic, will be a challenge.
“The streets are just very congested and bringing in more and more businesses like that, especially a boutique hotel, it’s just going to feel very, very busy."
The parking is “pretty much Main Street’s major flaw,” he added. “Otherwise, it’s a fantastic downtown core.”
The town does plan to address downtown parking by adding more spaces where the current tennis facility exists. Tennis players will get a new facility being built in the south end of town to compensate.
Tom Hempen has chaired the Main Street BiA for several years and is slated to be on the board again for the next term.
He said many positive things are happening with new businesses coming in, and existing businesses expanding. Even Made in Mexico — which had to move after a building sale last year — is reinvesting in the street and reopening, he noted.
But Hempen acknowledged the increase in costs, with it becoming more expensive to purchase a building on Main Street. That has also come with assessment growth for the town, he said.
Although that means the town sees increased revenue, Hempen said landlords are feeling some inflationary pressures along with businesses.
“Property taxes are going up. Interest rates are going up, utility costs, maintenance costs,” he said. “These things are all driving factors for us to see increased costs for building owners. These building owners, all of a sudden, having to get more rent.”
The Better Way Alliance believes that more government intervention is necessary to rein in business rents. Director Aaron Binder said rents have gone up significantly for many businesses.
“In the GTA, vacancy rates are fluctuating quite a lot right now and, in some cases where vacancy rates are going up, rents are also going up,” he said. “We need some actual regulation.”
There are virtually no protections for businesses for big rent hikes, Binder said. The organization is lobbying the government for guidelines for year-over-year increases, standardizing leases and a mechanism to resolve disputes.
A business “can only be squeezed so much before they give up or just move somewhere else,” he said. “The proposals that we’re putting forward are meant to be fair to tenants and landlords. When you standardize an industry, you create a more level playing field.”
Hempen said there are some positives to Main Street changing as it is.
“It’s attracting new investment. We’re seeing a turnover on building owners taking place, and they’re paying higher prices than what was paid a decade ago,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for Main Street, to see new businesses open.”
Regarding situations like Gilbert’s, Hempen said he is sad to see longtime businesses go.
“They’ve been friends, and colleagues and business owners alongside many of us on our street,” he said. “We miss them.”
Ground Burger Bar owner Grant Buckley, who just volunteered to join the tentative board of the Main Street BIA, is also more optimistic about the future of Main Street. He said he believes in the direction it is headed and spoke positively about some of the changes the hotel may bring.
“The hotel is going to add a lot to the demographic here, make it more of an upscale environment,” he said, adding that changeover is "the cycle of life. Not everything is going to be around forever. The new things that are coming in are the right things.”
But Buckley also believes the town needs to advance on a pilot project to make the street pedestrian-only, an idea that has garnered some past controversy. Council has tentatively included that in its strategic priorities for the term ahead.
“Keep pushing,” he said of Main Street’s direction. “Don’t go backward.”
Other downtowns also changing
Newmarket is far from the only downtown seeing transformation.
In the south end of York Region, Markham is implementing a grand vision to develop Main Street Unionville, with streetscape improvements, art and lighting.
City of Markham director of economic growth, culture and entrepreneurship Chris Rickett said the city is also providing market research to the area and businesses to help understand what products customers are looking for on the street.
It helps to “identify the types of business that might be missing from Main Street, so we can go out and try and get entrepreneurs to go out and start that business,” he said.
“We want to make sure that our Main street and our commercial area are attractive, but also when we try to build complete communities, there are local amenities that meet the needs of local residents.”
Markham also has construction coming in the area, but Rickett said they look to work with business owners to ensure access is maintained.
Timelines for construction could be 18 to 24 months, but as far as curating business, “the work is never done,” he added.
Newmarket has made its own efforts to boost Main Street, with programs such as the Choose Local advertising campaigns, Random Acts of Downtown Shopping, and a water rebate initiative, as well as holding events.
But Gilbert said the town has not done enough to help, and those efforts “can be described as nothing but an abject failure as far as bringing actual customers and dollars into our stores.”
The BIA itself has had its challenges, with the pandemic hampering its usual slate of events. Hempen said businesses have been quite busy recovering after the pandemic, leaving less time for them to volunteer with BIA initiatives.
There was also some difficulty getting enough members for a new board, but the BIA managed it at its recent AGM.
“Everybody’s really excited to dig in and start working on some initiatives for the street,” Hempen said. “It’s the place to be in the summer and the spring. You can see it.”
He re-emphasized that he does feel sorry about stores leaving but that it is something that can come with progress.
“All on our street wish them well,” Hempen said.