East End residents puzzled by decision to leave retail space empty

·7 min read

Nearly 18 months after the only full-service grocer in the city's East End closed for good, there are still no plans for a replacement, and based on corporate silence, there is little indication that will change anytime soon.

The Porcupine Mall on Highway 101 East housed a full-service grocer for decades under various banners such as Mike's, Loeb, and most recently, Metro.

Metro closed its location in the Porcupine Mall in August 2019, leaving the area's roughly 5,000 residents without anywhere to purchase products such as fresh meat and poultry without a drive into Timmins.

Not long after the closure, a group of concerned citizens organized a petition to gauge the public's interest and reaction to the closure. They dedicated several weeks to the effort, both in-person on the streets, as well as making an online version available. It was a successful effort.

“We got over 3,500 signatures on it, and presented it to city council,” said Theresa Rycaj, one of the organizers.

The idea for the petition was actually a suggestion from Mayor George Pirie, but when Rycaj presented at the city council meeting on Sept. 22, 2020, the response, she said, was rather deflating for the group.

“We felt we got blindsided by the mayor and council,” she told The Daily Press.

“After the presentation, Mayor Pirie says, 'Why not start a co-operative' and that's not what was asked of us. You asked us to do a petition. It was very discouraging and very disappointing.”

Rycaj felt that it really didn't seem to matter how many signatures were on the petition.

“I think Mayor Pirie already had his agenda set.”

At that council meeting, and after Rycaj's presentation, Pirie stated: “I'm a little confused, to tell you the truth, by Metro. They actually bought the whole facility, and have been inactive now for well over a year, and I thought that it would have been resolved by now.”

Pirie acknowledged that he had also been unable to get any straight answers from the Metro corporation, the owners of the Porcupine Mall.

He suggested that Rycaj and other citizens form a co-operative store, and seek a donation of $10 dollars from everyone who signed the petition. With that money, and a board of directors in place, they could move forward and hire consultants.

“Then you do a marketing study. You do a business study,” said Pirie.

“Then the community will be fully involved in that solution, which I think is essential to get this determined.”

He added that in theory, a co-operative shop could become another place for local farmers and food producers to sell their products, thus also boosting the emerging local agri-food industry.

“The future is in your hands. Drive it,” Pirie told Rycaj.

The only member of city council who uttered a word on the subject that evening was Ward 4 Coun. John Curley, a lifelong East End resident.

“We've got to get something going, and they don't seem to be answering calls, or returning any messages,” said Curley, adding his name to the list of people who had been stonewalled by the Metro corporation.

Rycaj said although she was appreciative of mayor and council for allowing the presentation, there wasn't any realistic assistance offered.

“Co-operatives are a thing of the past. We had three here in Timmins before, and once the large food chains opened up, the co-operatives all shut down because they can't compete,” she said.

A co-operative grocer is essentially a smaller version of a supermarket that is owned by the people who shop there. Members decide what products are sold and at what price. They have been on a consistent decline for decades.

“I used to work for one too, and it was a nice little business,” said Rycaj, but added they are simply obsolete.

Aside from convenience stores, East End residents are served by The Urban Farm on Crawford Street, which focuses on local and regional products, as well as Giant Tiger in the Porcupine Mall, which expanded its food offerings after Metro's closure.

Rycaj said she applauds their efforts.

“Giant Tiger, and Dollarama, and The Urban Farm, they are doing above and beyond. I can't say enough about them.”

Still, she said it's not a full-service grocer, which is what the community truly needs.

Aside from the presentation to city council, Rycaj also contacted Metro corporate to provide them with the petition results, and inquire about future plans for the vacant space, as owners of the property.

“As a business, we evaluate our store network on an ongoing basis to ensure stores are meeting the needs of both our customers and our business objectives. The South Porcupine Mall location did not have enough people shopping the store for us to keep it open and still meet our financial objectives,” reads a statement from Pamela Zasidko, Metro's Ontario customer care supervisor, in response to Rycaj dated Oct. 9, 2020.

Rycaj was disappointed at the response, and the lack of attention paid to the suggestions found in her correspondance.

“We presented different options. Let Giant Tiger expand? They said no. A couple of the former Metro employees, they were considering possibly opening a butcher shop and produce mini-mart, they said no. It's like, are you kidding me?”

She is puzzled by Metro's decision to simply leave the largest retail space in the mall completely empty for 18 months.

“Why not rent the space out to Pick Of The Crop for example, maybe two or three times a week, opening something up? They again said, no.”

Metro's few public statements since the closure have cited “low foot traffic” and “low sales” but Rycaj and many other East Enders find that difficult to believe. She said some of the former employees mentioned targets were in fact met, but that issues with management and labour relations also played a role.

“There a lot factors why they closed it, but they aren't going to get into it. There are many factors, but it wasn't a lack of foot traffic.”

Adding to the frustration is the fact that Metro is not exactly a company hurting for profits.

Their 2020 annual corporate report showed net earnings of $796.4 million, which was up 11 per cent from the previous year. Dividends per share increased 12.2 per cent in 2020, the 26th consecutive year of dividend growth.

The Montreal-based corporation operates over 950 food stores throughout Ontario and Quebec under various banners including Metro, Super C, and Food Basics, as well as 648 drugstores, mainly under the Jean Coutu banner.

When contacted by The Daily Press for an interview, Metro's communications manager Stephanie Bonk provided a brief statement.

“Kindly, we will decline. There are no updates to share.”

Repeated attempts to reach Porcupine Mall management have also been unsuccessful.

For Rycaj and other East Enders, the silence is demoralizing.

“Especially now, during COVID, we could certainly use a grocery store,” she said.

“You look at people on fixed incomes, and senior citizens who don't have transportation to Timmins. Even with the bus service, you're sometimes going onto a full bus with bags of groceries.”

Metro still operates their Timmins location on Algonquin Boulevard West, as well as discount grocer Food Basics on Brunette, but they certainly can't count on Rycaj's business.

“Since Metro closed down, I haven't shopped at Metro in Timmins or Food Basics, and I won't,” she said. “I won't support them.”

Andrew Autio is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter for The Daily Press. LJI is a federally funded program.

Andrew Autio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Press