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Market Squared: The east remembers

The east end really wants a grocery store, history is not on their side

“I’m always thankful for the opportunity to tell the citizens of the east end of Guelph what’s been happening when it comes to their community,” Mayor Cam Guthrie wrote in a letter to the Mercury-Tribune. Between those words there’s a distinct hint from the mayor’s keyboard as if to say, “This again?” 

To rewind, a letter was sent to the Trib entitled, Dear Mayor Cam Guthrie: Give the east end some attention. Occasionally anger bubbles to the surface in the east side of Guelph and erupts, usually when something big is happening elsewhere in the city like a new plaza opening or a ground breaking on a new city amenity. 

Now this anger is not unfounded. The number of people in the east side keeps increasing, but the commercial and infrastructural footprint has more or less remained the same. Millions were spent on upgrading the Victoria Road Recreation Centre, and building a new branch of the public library, but across the road from that is a big empty field that east enders are continually told will one day be a grocery store. 

On a lark, I Googled past news articles about that site, and the lack of construction on a new shopping centre being done there. Way back in 2010, then-Councillor Kathleen Farrelly voiced concern about approving over 850 new housing units in Ward 1 before a new grocery store was constructed in the area. All eyes were then, as now, on the corner of Starwood and Watson where Loblaws had bought land. 

“They’ve been sort of dithering a bit because of the downturn,” Farrelly said. “It’s not the city’s fault. Loblaws is just sitting on that property.”

Just one month later, a headline saying “South Guelph seeing surge in commercial development” was printed in the Mercury as commercial development in what is now known as the Pergola Commons plaza began to pick up steam. The article noted that Loblaws owned property there, and was in no rush to start building even though an LCBO, a CIBC branch and a Meridian Credit Union were all looking to open in and around that site later that year. 

Fast forward a year. In February 2011, an article about the general business concerns of Loblaws forecasted a “difficult” year, and rising prices, which meant shrinking profits. In other words, that was likely going to be the excuse for a while as to why there were no shovels in the ground at Starwood and Watson. 

The disappointment of area residents was lodged loudly at a town hall held by Ward 1’s councillors that March. “The city can’t force the developers to put up buildings,” said Bob Bell, who added that the area wasn’t likely yet busy enough for a large grocery store. “The roads in the east end aren’t very conducive to generating traffic.”

When the calendar was turned over to 2012 things hadn’t changed much, but there was a new wrinkle. HBC had announced that they were closing all its Zellers stores, including the three in Guelph, and their location at Eramosa was immediately eyed for absorption by its next door neighbour, Zehrs, a Loblaws store. 

As then Ward 1 Councillor Jim Furfaro explained at an April council meeting, Loblaw's opening a store on Watson Parkway was still “not on the radar any time in the near future,” doubly so with the possibility of expanding an existing store. In any event, committee approved the initial planning for the expanded Zehrs on Eramosa a couple of weeks later. 

A few months after that, with Loblaws still a no-show, Bell and Furfaro were reportedly talking to the owners of Sobey’s about moving in to the area. “Loblaw is not the only developer and in the meantime we’re trying to spike the interest of other commercial developers so we can actually create an alternative,” said Bell. 

At the same time though the finger-pointing had started, an area developer was asking council for a bylaw amendment to turn land they owned in the area of the east end library branch from commercial into residential. Creating a “sea of houses” out along Watston “was ill-conceived,” said Bell, “and Metrus [the developer] is a major player in the east end and has to accept some of that responsibility as well.”

The gambit seemed to work because by the time 2013 came around, it was all hopeful about Loblaws again. “We’re told Zehrs will have a response in 18 to 24 months and that’s a lot better than eight to 10 years,” said Furfaro in an article that began with the line, “There finally appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel in the bid to land a grocery store for Guelph’s east side.”

Well, there was light at the end of someone’s tunnel. That July, a Zehrs was announced for construction on that land in the south end, but by that point a Food Basics was already built and operating across the street. Like those baseball ghosts in Field of Dreams, it seems that if someone else builds a grocery store, then Loblaws will come. 

But as 2013 came to a close, a grocery store in the east end was still a pipe dream. At a Ward 1 town hall Loblaw's found one brave soul (or sacrificial lamb depending on your point of view) to attend, and tell angry residents that the soonest they would expect a new store was 2015. In case you’ve briefly forgotten, we’re now more than halfway through 2017. 

Between now and then though, there was an election, and just a month before E-Day, then-Mayor Karen Farbridge announced the impossible. “I have been advised that Loblaws will soon be submitting a concept plan for staff to review that includes a food store and additional retail opportunities,” she wrote on her blog. “They plan to submit a site plan application towards the end of this year or early 2015. I am also told that their current goal is to start construction late 2015 or early 2016.” 

Again, it’s 2017. 

So we can hardly blame east end residents for their frustration. They’ve been yurked, they’ve been jerked, and they’ve be told on at least two separate occasions that relief is two year away only to get two years older. In any event, it’s not often that the mayor personal writes a rebuttal to a letter to the editor, even if it is directed to him, which itself should give you an indication of just how seriously the mayor’s office takes the concerns of east enders. 

Unfortunately, being serious about an issue doesn’t translate into action around it. Is there anyone out there that thinks city government is purposefully holding back on getting a grocery store going? You think Dan Gibson and Bob Bell don’t want to look like big damn heroes when shovels go in the ground? 

At the very least, I’m sure they’d love to get that file off their desk because since 2004, six different people have held office as Ward 1 City Councillors and the first, and the last thing, they’re measured by is that empty piece of land at the corner of Starwood and Watson.