Two of Calgary's walkable, inner-city shopping districts face distinct challenges

There's a two block stretch of the Kensington shopping district that looks anything but vibrant.

Six storefronts are empty with two more businesses set to close by the end of the year, a men's clothing shop and a toy store, both long-time tenants along the popular shopping and dining strip.

It's been a tough go for some local, independent businesses trying to stay open in a weak economy.

They face rising costs and not enough customers. Business leaders say it's not all doom and gloom, and several unnamed stores are set to open.

And businesses in Inglewood, another pedestrian-friendly, inner-city neighbourhood, say there's reason for optimism. 

A walk along Kensington Road between 10th and 11th streets N.W. serves as a bleak reminder of how Calgary is struggling with the country's highest employment rate among major cities and slumping retail sales, which recently sunk to their lowest level in Alberta in two years.

Terry Mullin has been dressing generations of Calgarians for half a century. At one point, he had three stores in the city. But next month, his last remaining location, James and Dickson Clothiers in Kensington, will close.

There are several reasons for the decision, including the economy and softer demand for formal office clothing.

The other factor is his age.

"I'm 75. I've done enough of this. It's time to quit."

Bryan Labby/CBC

There are a number of other empty storefronts in Kensington as well, but it's only temporary, according to the local Business Improvement Area. The BIA, which is funded by the 270 or so businesses in the area, says five new stores are set to open, but there are no other details.

Annie MacInnis, the association's executive director, says some local business owners face long odds because of the economy and rising costs — some of them tied to ongoing increases in non-residential property taxes.

Two doors down from Mullin's shop is Livingstone & Cavell Extraordinary Toys, which will also shutter Dec. 31.

Edward Cavell, a co-owner of the store for 27 years, says given the economy and his age, the decision not to sign another long-term lease was relatively easy.

"It's time to appreciate what we've had for a long time and to get onto other things."

Cavell, 71, says he is concerned about the future of other small, independent retailers in Calgary.

"People have to sort of recognize that if they want to have the traditional aspect of retail, they've got to support it."

There are a few more people — potential customers — living in the area, but not that many.

The population in the surrounding communities, Hillhurst and Sunnyside, has grown by only 200 since 2015. 

What about Inglewood?

Another pedestrian-friendly, inner-city neighbourhood sometimes compared to Kensington (technically it's Hillhurst-Sunnyside), is Inglewood. The population has also only marginally increased, by 100 people, since 2015. But a quick walk along Ninth Avenue S.E. shows there are fewer empty storefronts. 

Rebecca O'Brien, the executive director of the Inglewood Business Improvement Area for 10 years, says there isn't a problem with vacancies in Inglewood. She says the number of businesses has doubled in the past decade to about 200. 

"Top developers are circling this neighbourhood."

She says the area has an edgy, industrial feel that's attracted a number of young entrepreneurs, manufacturers and micro-breweries. 

O'Brien says several residential and commercial properties are under consideration, including a possible hotel. She says the ongoing challenge is to maintain Inglewood's charm, eccentricity and affordability — while avoiding gentrification.

Bryan Labby/CBC

On that subject, O'Brien comes to the defence of a new, seven-storey condo building on Ninth Avenue as a symbol of the community's boldness and an acknowledgement that Inglewood is moving forward. 

She says the community allowed an extra storey on the building in exchange for some public space along the community's main street.

One of the architects who worked on the "Avli on Atlantic" project lives in Kensington and says the public space will "activate" the street by allowing people to stop, take a break, sit on one of the benches and hopefully add vibrancy to the street. 

And maybe draw some customers into the new retail spaces.

The building was set back to allow for a much wider sidewalk, something that was missing in Kensington.

"The fundamental success of streets is putting people on streets," said Kevin Harrison, a principal at Sturgess Architecture. 

"It creates more opportunity for pause, for reflection, for engagement," he said.

Hey, we're local

The two communities are united in attracting more Calgarians to stop in and spend some money in the local shops.

MacInnis helped spearhead the current "Come in, we're local" campaign.

Bryan Labby/CBC

"Businesses are having a hard time getting through this downturn and they need the support of Calgarians."

O'Brien says it's going to be an ongoing challenge into 2020.

Back at the menswear shop in Kensington, Mullin says the campaign comes too late.

Mullin says if the economy was stronger, he'd consider renewing the lease for his store. But his gut tells him it's time to walk away.

"I don't feel good about the future of this business."

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.