Their main streets finally open, merchants in St. Jacobs and Conestogo are hoping for a bit of Christmas magic to make the transition complete.
Drawn-out regional construction projects shut down stretches of King Street in St. Jacobs for much of the past two years, while Conestogo’s Sawmill Road was off limits through the spring, summer and early fall.
It was a tough stretch for residents and shop-owners alike, with the latter hoping to see business rebound at what is traditionally prime time for retailers.
“Going into the holiday season, it is positive. The town looks good. It’s decorated. It feels cozy, and at night when you’re leaving, it’s lit up. So it has that vibe this year that wasn’t there last year because of [construction], so I think that is a big change and it’s positive. I think from here on now, it’s all positive outcomes,” said Edward Denyer, the chair of the St. Jacobs Business Improvement Area (BIA).
The Kings Street reconstruction was disruptive, but downtown merchants coped as best they can, perhaps finding some solace in the fact things weren’t as bad as the massive problems associated with reconstruction work in Uptown Waterloo, for instance, he suggested.
“Construction has been a bear and, you know, we can complain all we want about it. We can just look at Waterloo and see it’s worse, so it’s not that bad – it’s perspective, right?” said Denyer, who owns Eco Café on King Street.
“Here, it was hard, and there are still details that aren’t done, so lessons learned. You could always do better. And as long as those who did it can atone for what went wrong, you know that’s what you can try.”
Now, with few signs of construction littering the thoroughfare, the holiday spirit is alive and well, he said.
One of the ways St. Jacobs has geared up for a holiday push for businesses was the annual St. Jacobs Sparkles event, which was extra festive this time around.
“Everyone I have spoken to so far has said it was equal or better to last year in terms of transaction value and sales, which is what really impacts most,” said Denyer.
He attributes the success to a more visible presence of local residents, playing into the ‘live local, shop local’ mentality present across small business hubs.
“The community was coming into play too, so now we are trying to create that symbiotic relationship between the retailers, the businesses and the people that live here – and you are seeing it,” he said. “That is nice because that’s what we want; we are trying to build a community not just have a sales opportunity.”
In addition to events such as Sparkles, Denyer says local businesses are making the most of a construction-free area by creating a draw for tourists and locals alike by making a visit downtown into more of an experience, despite the cold weather that can deter some people.
“The winter here is difficult in a retail type environment, this is where experiences are key,” he said. “When you’re competing with online shopping, brick-and-mortar shopping is very difficult to sustain, so specialty is what makes it unique. I think that the village is becoming more and more aware that we are in the business of giving not just product but experience, so creating experience for people is important.”
Denyer himself is embodying the push by offering classes at Eco Café, such as ‘cupping’ which teaches how to taste coffee, define those nodes that one likes in a hot brew, and quantify a flavour to be able to know how to choose what you enjoy in a specialty coffee.
Over in Conestogo, which doesn’t have a formal business group like the BIA, merchants that weathered the eight-month storm share some of the same hopes for a construction-free holiday season.
Rachel Behling, owner of Auburn Vintage Clothiers and one of the few retail businesses who stayed open during construction, can happily say since the road has reopened there has been a flow of people taking advantage of the access to the village. Shoppers have returned following a stretch when she was unsure about the longevity of her business.
“It is picking up. My hope is that the upswing continues to Christmas,” said Behling. “I know January is tough for retail anyway, but the fact that people can get there without problems is a good thing.”
With sales having been down a few percent consistently over the last nine months, Behling hopes the Christmas upswing continues through and helps to make up for lost time and revenues.
“We are still there, we are still smiling and, you know, just looking towards a really great Christmas season and hoping for the best, that I can carry on where I am because I love it. I love where my store is,” said Behling. “It can only get better and that’s the great thing.”
Behling may have weathered the construction season staying open, but some were not so lucky. That list includes a long-time landmark, the Black Forest Inn, which closed up shop for good, with the owners putting the blame on the construction.