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Banff town council debate bylaw to restrict proliferation of retail chains

Rundle Mountain in Banff, Alta.

Jupiter Images

Banff is suffering a crisis of identity.

Amid the tea and tacky tourist shops, the town's main strip is home to The Keg, Starbucks, Lululemon and plenty of other familiar retailers. That streetscape has become the focal point of an argument over whether corporatization has reached a saturation point and it is time to stop the town at the heart of Canada's oldest national park from turning into a strip mall.

With a push from independent businesses in the craggy mountain community, Banff's town council is debating a bylaw amendment that would set quotas for future chain restaurants and stores. Although a key second-reading deliberation was delayed on Monday because a councillor was unable to get back from a U.S. trip, the long-simmering question about the growth of chains in Banff will play out in council chambers in the spring.

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"In national parks, we protect and preserve what is dear to us – and that needs to resonate within the town as well," said Banff Tea Co. owner Susanne Gillies-Smith, spokeswoman for the group that wants limits on chain stores and restaurants.

The town is the latest in an exclusive group of picturesque Canadian communities to grapple with the question of corporations in paradise.

On a tranquil slice of Vancouver Island, Qualicum Beach, B.C., is generally considered Canada's first community to regulate the types of businesses allowed. Decades ago, it borrowed from the playbook of affluent Carmel, Calif., and introduced regulations for the kinds of signs business could erect, banned drive-through restaurants and cut the size of retailers in an effort to discourage fast-food chains and big-box stores in favour of smaller, family-owned outlets.

The town of 8,687 tells fast-food outlets that community surveys routinely show a preference for mom-and-pop shops, Mayor Teunis Westbroek said.

"You can push for this, but you're not really welcome here," Mr. Westbroek, now in his fifth term as mayor, often tells would-be retailers, "and the community prides itself on that."

That's not to say Qualicum Beach isn't home to some familiar names, including banks, gas stations, pharmacies and hardware stores. But the community doesn't want businesses to "look for loopholes" in the regulations to slip in, the mayor added.

"We have something special. We are unique. There's something different about this place."

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Old Town Lunenburg, N.S., revered as the "best surviving example" of planned British colonial settlements in North America, has also guarded its historic feel with a municipal heritage conservation district plan and bylaw that dictates what franchise retailer outlets must look like.

"We've concentrated our efforts on exterior signage as opposed to what happens within," said Rachel Bailey, mayor of the seaside town.

Old Town Lunenburg has only one chain outlet – a Subway restaurant. Still, a plan to build a Wilsons Gas Stops and adjoining Burger King by this summer right at the doorstep to the historic downtown created "some displeasure" among residents, Ms. Bailey said.

In Banff, which gets as many as four million visitors a year, residents in favour of the bylaw say chain stores and restaurants can afford high rents independent retailers can't. Many point to the painful lesson of the Banff Book and Art Den, a town institution that closed in 2009 after a bookstore giant set up nearby.

"When you go on safari – going to visit a national park in Africa – do you really hope you get to see a MacDonald's?" Ms. Gillies-Smith said. "We're not treating our national park like other countries, with the same reverence. People come here to see something unique ... a national park, not a strip mall."

The town says it classifies 75 per cent of Banff businesses as "local or unique," noting a business classified as locally owned can still be a franchise. Big-box stores are already banned.

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In public hearings late last month, many people spoke against the bylaw amendment. Landlords argued the market should decide which businesses come to town, and the bylaw could dampen plans to renovate an aging shopping plaza.

"There are real dollars at risk here," said Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff Lake Louise Hotel Motel Association. "It's already a heavily regulated environment in which to do business. We don't need to make it more difficult."

Sandra Santa Lucia, a former publisher of the Banff Crag and Canyon, who has lived in Banff for almost five decades, said she supports both independent retailers and chains, but doesn't think any business should be blocked.

"I'm delighted we have a Gap here," Ms. Santa Lucia said. "We get people from all around the world visiting us. And as tourists, they're used to the brand names."

However, a small sampling of tourists in Banff on the weekend said the bylaw is a good idea.

"Big chains have a negative impact on the visual and cultural part of Banff – which should have homegrown foods and good beef from Calgary," said Montrealer Martin Dufour, in Banff on a ski vacation.

Mayor Karen Sorensen and other council members are not speaking on the issue until it has been decided.

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