Downtown shops currently face tough prospects. Losing S&R Department Store, the large business and 50-year old commercial anchor at the bottom of Princess Street, is one of three major disruptions taking place concurrently. The same area on Princess Street is due to be dug up this summer to replace ageing water and sewerage mains, and similar infrastructure work is planned for next summer. The third issue is the general downturn in business due to the downturn in the economy and fewer visitors from other countries. How much bad news can merchants survive?
At last count, there are more than 165 shops, large and small, in the historic area, and I have been into almost all of them to learn more. More than three-quarters are merchant-owned and operated. That’s really unusual in an age of big box stores and shopping malls. About one in four offers clothing, fashions and shoes. The fashion boutiques are often small delightful places with specialised imports from Europe and Eastern or Southern Asia. There are some really excellent gift shops, jewellery makers, several art galleries and a few unique stores such as Tara’s Natural Foods, Minotaur Games and Toys, Gwin Gryffon and the Kingston Guitar Shop. Within the same small area you can watch glass being blown, pottery shaped and silversmiths at their benches designing earrings, broaches and neckpieces.
These merchants and artists are all dependent on trade that comes from Kingston people and visitors from near and far. Except that there are fewer visitors these days and less money with the economic downturn.
This special shopping area is as much an asset to Kingston as its other glories that so attract visitors. The commercial buildings exude the visually splendid architecture of an earlier age, with interior walls of exposed stone and brick. By way of contrast, in the late 1880’s, Vancouver’s “city hall” was a tent. How extraordinary Kingston must seem to visitors from British Columbia and the Prairie Provinces.
Does having a unique shopping area in the historic core matter? Does it have a future or should it be allowed to wither and die? You don’t have to travel far to see what could happen. New shopping malls drove out the merchants in Brockville’s lovely historic core on the waterfront, of which little remains but the occasional pawnshop and empty storefronts gaping like bad teeth. Why visit such decay?
What can be done? One is for the city to recognise the intrinsic value of the shopping area in the historic core as more than taxable property. The shops deserve promoting as an alternative to big box stores and shopping malls, as a tourist asset, and generally to expand the reputation of the area amongst all Kingstonians. Downtown Kingston provides crowd-drawing summer events, and Tourism Kingston publishes a high standard of tourist publications for hotels.
What do you think? Better still, what would you do? Constructive comments invited. Thanks to elasticcamel for the photo of S&R.