Banff mulls restrictions on chain stores and restaurants

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

When I was growing up in Calgary a trip to Banff was a long Sunday drive, an eternity in the back seat of my mother's smoke-filled Volkswagen Beetle as she and my grandmother puffed away, windows often closed against the chilly mountain air.

I looked forward to cruising through the national park gates, and not just because it meant the ordeal was almost over. Banff was another world: the hot springs, bison grazing in a pasture beside the highway, the chance of spotting a bear or a big-horn sheep.

The quaint town, with its stone-and-timber storefronts, interested me only as far as deciding where we might stop for coffee and pastries before heading home.

The town of Banff was always a tourist trap — excuse me, destination — developed more than century ago as a scenic stop on the Canadian Pacific Railway route to the Pacific Ocean. But it wrestles with the kind of face it wants to present to visitors.

Banff council this week voted narrowly to hold a public debate on whether to limit the number of chain stores and restaurants in the town site, after a similar measure was voted down last fall.

It's pitting business people who want to keep down sky-high rents against opponents who see it as a futile attempt to create a "utopia village" dominated by mom-and-pop shops of tenuous viability, the National Post reports.

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The decision sets the stage for a hearing early next year on a proposed bylaw putting quotas on franchise outlets.

"I welcome all businesses that appreciate our unique mountain community," town councillor Stavros Karlos, who opposes the bylaw, told the Post.

Karlos said he visited several California municipalities that tried similar measures to help small local businesses.

"This mechanism guarantees nothing and risks much," he said.

Such measures are taken for "reasons other than the economic success or vitality or their destination," Karlos said. "It's done to preserve an ideal or a set of values."

But quotas could have unintended consequences, such as driving down rents and putting established chain stores in a bubble that protects them from competition, he warned.

Coun. Paul Baxter called the proposed bylaw a "knee-jerk reaction to a perceived boogie man," Banff's Crag and Canyon reported.

"It's us trying to appease a few vocal residents who have become a town crier who are trying to address their flawed business plans," he said.

But bylaw supporter Susanne Gillies-Smith, who owns a tea shop, warned that if the bylaw doesn't pass "we'll be living in a strip mall. In a national park."

A wide-open environment would not only reduce the incentive for landlords to keep rents affordable but could change the very character of the town of 10,000.

"Owners can't afford to operate and that means they can't afford to live here," Gillies-Smith told the Post. "The people who are living here are working for the chain stores, so they're the people who are less invested in the community … the community is becoming more transient."

Giving chains carte blanche could eventually backfire, she added.

"People won't want to come … because the town itself is going to be so tacky."

Too late, says Post columnist Matt Gurney.

"The good news is that I can promise you that people won't stop flocking to Banff when it becomes tacky," Gurney wrote Tuesday. "The bad news is I know this because people are still coming even though Banff is already tacky."

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People don't go to Banff to admire or tut-tut the town, Gurney rightly contends.

"You go for the mountains, the lakes, the hiking trails and the breathtaking views," he writes. "Banff exists as a hub for all the tourists who are there for some other reason — i.e., the Rocky Mountains ...

"So long as it continues to be the most convenient place (only place, really) you can get a coffee and a bite to eat inside the surrounding National Park, I like Banff's odds."

He's right, but only technically. A 10-minute drive east of Banff, just outside the park gates, lies Canmore, which in the last quarter-century has grown from a gas stop and weekend skiing hamlet for Calgary to a town of more than 12,000. Plenty of places to get a bite there, and do some shopping, too.