Sohail Panjwani and Braj Tripathi lean against an empty storefront in the New Horizon Mall north of Calgary; the holiday shopping rush is on elsewhere but at this shopping centre, there are no customers and the two store owners gossip to pass time. They do this almost daily.
The New Horizon Mall has remained largely empty since it opened in 2018, standing as a symbol for Alberta’s continuing economic plight. Employment is still precarious in the province and the economy has yet to roar to life, five years after a deep recession ended. Store owners are hanging on through another bleak Christmas season, wondering if this will be the last they stay open.
Dreamed up during Calgary’s past economic boom, the $200-million mall promised to be a new beacon for shopping alongside the province’s busiest highway. Instead, nearly 80 per cent of the shop spaces in the bazaar-style centre remain empty, and shopkeepers don’t bother keeping regular business hours any more.
Storeowners such as Mr. Panjwani and Mr. Tripathi say they’re frustrated with the slow pace of things, but they remain optimistic that the next economic boom can’t be far off and the empty stores will fill.
“Alberta’s economy is struggling and this is taking longer than expected, but it’s getting there,” Mr. Panjwani said. He gestures at the empty storefronts around them.
The cavernous building feels like a deserted airport terminal. Under its high and swooping roof are more than 500 small glass-fronted stores, about 390 of which are currently empty. Two dozen more are preparing to open, according to the mall’s operator.
More shoppers have been coming in recent months, said Mr. Panjwani, since an anchor store selling Chinese goods opened. A second anchor store, selling produce, is expected to open in the next few months. (Anchor stores are key retailers that are supposed to attract customers to a mall.) Mr. Panjwani hopes that store will help fill the parking lots around the mall. Until then, he’s waiting.
“We’re here with nothing to do, so we gossip,” he said. The only sound in the area is that of sewing machines humming away as the mall’s tailors work late into the night.
Mr. Tripathi splits work at his store, which sells perfume and other beauty products, with his wife. She opens up in the morning and he keeps the store open through the evening, both work other jobs. “It’s not easy, it’s getting on my nerves,” he said about the many empty storefronts and shopkeepers who don’t bother opening up.
During a Wednesday evening, just after work in December, nearly half of the occupied stores in the mall were closed. “If this mall takes off, I’ll be able to retire and sit at home,” Mr. Tripathi said with a sigh.
Eli Swirsky apologizes when he hears that so many of the mall’s stores aren’t open during shopping hours. It shouldn’t be that way, he said. The president of the Torgan Group, the Toronto-based developer behind the mall, Mr. Swirsky has little power to keep stores open. Unlike a traditional mall, most of the stores in New Horizon were sold like condominiums – Torgan kept about a third of the shop spaces. A condo board exists to run the mall’s affairs.
“It shouldn’t work like that, you don’t want people to not know what to expect. That’s not a good experience. But it’ll go away,” he said, adding that the issue with uneven hours is a teething problem and will correct itself. “It’s in everyone’s interest to be open when the mall is open and closed when it is closed.”
The developer has set a goal of filling half the stores in the mall by the end of 2020.
There are a number of incentives in place, with free rent being offered for up to a year in stores and significant breaks on utilities and other costs.
It took two years to fill up the Pacific Mall outside Toronto, another Torgan Group property, according to Mr. Swirsky. Calgary’s mall will take a year longer.
“It’s a work in progress, but it’s headed in the right direction,” he said.
Not all store owners believe the economy should be blamed for the mall’s woes. David Chamberlain sells board games from a crowded storefront and points across the street at Cross Iron Mills. A large shopping centre owned by the Quebec pension plan’s real estate arm, Cross Iron Mills has been open for a decade and has been a hit with customers. “Cross Iron Mills hasn’t reduced its number of visitors or sales. Most days the parking lot is full, if we only got a quarter of those visitors, things would improve a lot here,” he said.
According to Craig Patterson, a director at the University of Alberta’s school of retailing, Cross Iron Mills is the third most productive shopping centre in the Calgary region in terms of sales per square foot. Malls that include luxury brands have done well in Alberta, he said.
One of the main challenges with New Horizon is the lack of any branded stores amid all the small operations, he said. “There’s a lot of retail in Calgary, most people have cars and are mobile," he said. "It’ll be very challenging for them to stand out. The Calgary market is very suburban, it’s very brand driven.”
According to Mr. Chamberlain, business has been somewhat better than he expected. He opened the store after selling board games online for years. As a result, he says he has tailored his selection to what shoppers have been buying. Around him are unpacked boxes, ready with new inventory for shoppers during the Christmas season.
“What am I doing that other sellers aren’t doing right? People really need to step it up. They put out the same merchandise for months and it doesn’t sell. They need to change what they are doing,” he said. “There’s a faction of operators that feel entitled, they want the mall to provide the customers. They don’t go out and get them.”
Neil Gagne, who runs Zeek’z Gizmoz and Gadgetz, said his fellow shop owners need to build more buzz around their stores to get the thousands of passing motorists every day to pull over and visit the mall. “I wonder about some of the people here. You’re coming into a ghost mall and opening a store, you really need a plan,” he said.