Once upon a time, Victoria Avenue East was one of the liveliest streets in this Northern Ontario community. As the main drag of Fort William, the southern half of what was to become Thunder Bay, it hummed with urban life. Locals came to watch movies at local theatres or shop at the Chapples department store, a popular destination for decades. Streetcars trundled up to Port Arthur in the north, connecting the two growing cities that were later to be united as one. There were banks and restaurants and five-and-dime stores all around.
Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the flight to the suburbs that was overtaking cities across North America started sucking the life out of downtown Fort William.
Alarmed, city leaders decided to take what one historian called a daring, progressive step. Reckoning that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, they blocked off Victoria Avenue, covered it with a vast roof and created an indoor mall designed to rival those in the ‘burbs. When the shining new Victoriaville Centre opened on May 24, 1980, bands played, horses paraded and an alderwoman dressed up as Queen Victoria for the occasion.
It never really worked.
Although Victoriaville was busy at first, shoppers continued to migrate to the authentic suburban malls sprouting in Intercity, the big, open area between Fort William and Port Arthur.
Over time, Fort William’s downtown continued to decline and the new mall at its centre fell into disrepair.
Today, buckets often line its tiled corridors to catch the water that comes through its leaky roof. Drug dealers do a steady business at its main entrance. A quarter of the main-floor stores are vacant and many of the others are flagging. Victoriaville has become a symbol for the problems of this struggling city.
“There is no future for this place, none at all,” says Sergio Stefanato, 73, a retired mechanic who came to a barbershop next to the mall for his monthly haircut one recent afternoon. He says his wife won’t come near: too dangerous and not enough parking.
“The biggest mess is right here in this mall, the biggest mess in the city.”
So now, Thunder Bay has a decision to make: Should it admit failure, tear down the mall and reopen the intersection; or should it spend millions fixing it up and making it work?
City hall has hired consultants to study the problem and asked the public to weigh in.
There are strong feelings on both sides. Those who want it demolished say the place is a magnet for trouble and a drain on the city’s coffers. Just maintaining Victoriaville in its rundown state, they say, costs half-a-million dollars a year. They even have a Facebook page that echoes Ronald Reagan’s remark about the Berlin Wall: Tear Down this Mall!
Mike Larizza calls Victoriaville “a blood clot in the heart of our downtown,” cutting off the natural flow of traffic. His company owns the Chapple Building, home of the the historic department store, now converted to offices. The mall, he says, is suppressing property values for nearby landlords.
City Councillor Shelby Ch’ng says a reopened street with patios and widened sidewalks could bring some life back to downtown Fort William. It is already enjoying a modest revival, with a hip coffee shop and high-end gift store doing good business. Instead of a shopping area, it is now Thunder Bay’s government and institutional centre, hosting its City Hall, courthouse and social-services headquarters. Victoriaville, Ms. Ch’ng says, doesn’t fit in. It “was built for an alternate universe,” in a time before big-box stores and online shopping.
Shopkeepers themselves acknowledge that the mall is languishing. Clothing-shop clerk Mary Sorokopud, 75, said one recent afternoon that precisely six people had visited the store since it opened that morning: two pairs of browsers who bought nothing, and one couple who asked her for money to buy coffee. She gave them some and ended up five bucks down on the day.
Across the way at a store that sells used books to raise money for the public library, Janice Creighton said the mall is dying “a slow, painful death.”
Over the course of the day a Globe and Mail reporter visited, a pair of private security guards grappled with a woman who refused their order to leave, pushing her to the floor and pulling her arms behind her back to handcuff her. A young man offered to sell a shotgun to a couple of men chatting on a bench. Two guys at the mall entrance arranged lines of a white powder on a windowsill.
But the brighter side of Victoriaville was on display, too.
Workers from nearby offices lined up at the Crock-N-Dial, a lunch counter that sells sandwiches and its famous Finnish soup. Volunteers sold homemade knitted goods from tables in the hallway to raise money for the Red Cross.
Defenders of Victoriaville say that while it may not be a roaring success as a shopping mall, it has a more important function: as a kind of meeting place for the city’s less privileged residents. Retired people from the surrounding neighbourhood come to have coffee with friends in the food court. Low-income residents visit the many social agencies that have offices in and around the mall.
“It’s right in the middle of where the people who need those services are,” says Ken McLellan, 75, who runs a clothing store. “They need things in walking distance. We’re there. They need programs in free open spaces. We have that.”
He says that Victoriaville puts on pumpkin-carving and Easter Bunny events for local children. It holds an arts-and-crafts fair in December for the holidays. It illuminates a Christmas tree and brings in a mall Santa. To close it would be “absolutely foolish."
Victoriaville is a centre for Indigenous agencies, too, including one that offers walk-in counselling for women in crisis. An umbrella group for Northern Ontario First Nations, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, has its offices in the complex. Indigenous people sell handmade crafts in the mall twice a year. One group even held a powwow there last year.
Kathleen Sawdo, an Indigenous human-resources specialist, says that if the city spruced the place up a bit, it could become "a beautiful Indigenous hub. It already is informally.”
It’s hard to say who will win the battle of Victoriaville. Debate about its future has been going on for years. A survey in 2016 showed that nine out of 10 residents wanted it demolished. But an estimate a couple of years ago put the cost at $9-million, a hefty sum for a city of about 100,000.
Consultants are to report back in the new year with three options for the mall. The public will get a chance to express an opinion. Then, the issue will go to city council for a decision.