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Gayle Martin, owner of The Wish List Gifts in Edmonton, AB. is seen behind the counter of her store on Nov. 26.The Globe and Mail

Inside The Wish List Gifts store in Edmonton’s historic Old Strathcona neighbourhood, Gayle Martin is surrounded by novelty mugs, kitschy art and other odd trinkets. But there is one thing missing: customers.

Ms. Martin’s business has always heavily relied on foot traffic, but the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many customers to stay home for much of the past 20 months and deterred them from visiting the area.

“We lost our Christmas because they closed the restaurants and we rely a lot on restaurant traffic here in the evening,” Ms. Martin said.

Her business has received rent relief from the federal government and tax refunds from the City of Edmonton, which helped her keep the doors open. But even with most public-health restrictions now lifted in Alberta, business remains slow.

Ms. Martin’s struggles are not unique, as the pandemic kept people at home and shifted more of their shopping and eating to online retail and delivery services, causing foot traffic along the normally bustling Whyte Avenue in Old Strathcona to dry up. This left many local businesses unprepared for the sudden change and forced 39 of them to either close their doors or move out in 2020, according to the Old Strathcona Business Association, or OSBA.

It’s a problem the business association and the municipal government are working to solve as retailers and hospitality businesses recover, in part by enticing more local businesses to fill empty storefronts and improving critical infrastructure in Old Strathcona.

“We now more than ever need to focus on shopping locally and keep the money in the local economy,” said Michael Janz, the city councillor whose ward includes Old Strathcona.

The OSBA recently launched a marketing campaign to attract new local and independent businesses to the area. In its recruitment package, it points to survey data showing 57 per cent of city residents identified the area as their most-preferred shopping district.

“We haven’t done this before, so this is a very new kind of space for us on our initiative side,” said Cherie Klassen, the executive director of the OSBA.

Ms. Klassen said the association’s surveys found local respondents wanted more local and independent businesses in the area. The OSBA explains that focusing on those types of businesses, rather than chains, will keep more money in the local community.

The campaign is part of the association’s push to look beyond the pandemic and toward a longer-term recovery. The group launched an economic recovery task force last year to help its members navigate the pandemic with help from municipal grants. It conducted surveys to assess the economic impact of the pandemic on the area and to develop a recovery strategy. It has transformed into a business recruitment committee in 2021 to push the new strategy forward.

Last year, the OSBA and the city worked together to offer business fee waivers, free patio permits, consultations and online support, and grants.

While the OSBA recorded 39 businesses closed throughout 2020, it also counted the same number of new businesses opened, which left the vacancy rate the same. Throughout 2020 until October, 2021, the OSBA recorded a total of 73 new businesses opened in the area while 62 either closed or moved out, leading to a positive gain of 11 new businesses.

Mr. Janz, the city councilor, said he’s working on a series of proposals to improve the area and address the challenges that remain. One of the main concerns that he has heard about is the lack of walkable spaces in the area. One of his proposals is to expand the avenue’s sidewalk and create more walkways that are both safe and accessible for everyone.

“If you go there during the certain peak times, they are going to [be] jam-packed,” he said. “It would be nice if we could spread that out.”

Jeff Nachtigall, co-owner of Sugared and Spiced Baked Goods Inc., said that while his shop is still making money, it is struggling to pay off debts – which was made more difficult by the pandemic.

“We can still keep operating, but we’re not able to pay down the debt that we incurred to build the shop,” he said.

He also wants the recently elected city council to be open to new and creative ideas that will improve the city’s new Back Street project, which aims to repurpose alleyways for businesses and create vibrant spaces for people to gather. Mr. Nachtigall said the alleyway program will create more walkable spaces for pedestrians.

“With our new city council, I’m pretty optimistic because we elected some good councillors who I think see things in a way that makes some sense finally,” he said.

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