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Big Box Stores Altering Historic Downtowns

Written by Dr. Betsy J. Donald
April 20 , 2009 10:16

S&R Department StoreIn my urban geography courses at Queen's University, the impact of big box retail stores on the community always guarantees a heated debate. The naysayers claim that there is no evidence that big-box retail stores affect historic downtowns, but their argument seems akin to those of people who still claim that there isn't evidence of global warming.

There is a certain element of common sense in both the realities of global warming and the loss of our vibrant historic downtowns. There is only so much retail capacity in small towns. The level of consumer spending within a population is relatively stable and predictable.

In other words, the size of the pie is fixed. Providing more retail options for the population does not increase the size of the pie. It makes for smaller slices for all, or perhaps only crumbs for some. If you continually add more and more big box stores on the fringes, it is just a matter of time before Canada's downtowns disappear -- and, along with them, an authentic and quality urban experience.

And now one of Kingston's greatest landmarks is set to close. Not Queen's University, not the military base, and not even one of the many prisons that dot the city's landscape, but an old-fashioned department store, S&R, one of the greatest independent retail stores in urban Canada.

Unlike other cities its size, Kingston has managed to weather the hollowing out of its historic downtown. But over the last few years, Kingston's great urban claim to fame -- a full-service, vibrant downtown -- has started to slip away. Today, much of the retail activity downtown is generated by specialty boutiques, restaurants and bars. This is fine when tourism and the economy are good. But what sustains downtown retailers and businesses when the Canadian dollar goes up or retail spending goes down are the retailers of essential household items: hardware, housewares, banking, groceries, affordable family clothing and footwear.

The cumulative effect of the closing in recent years of some retail banking outlets, the downtown Zeller's store, Fabricland and now S&R is a weakened urban retail cluster. Experience in other cities shows the resulting devastation to downtown cores and how difficult it is for those retail economies to bounce back.

Personally, I am gutted by the closing of S&R. I did 75% of all my non-food shopping at this store because it had many household sections, including the most wonderful toy store carrying not just the typical plastic junk that is crammed into Wal- Mart but wooden toys, dolls and games from all over the world.

One story I love to tell is about the night my eldest daughter lost her first tooth. She told me that she hoped the tooth fairy would bring her "a pink dress with flowers and matching hair clips." It was 8 p. m. on a Monday night, and I knew just where to go: S&R. So I ran down the street from one of the many neighbouring historic downtown residential areas and the fairy delivered the goods the next morning under her pillow.

S&R is a true Kingston social and cultural institution. It had special days for seniors and innovative lay-away plans for those who cannot afford the typical holiday shopping bonanza. Whenever you asked the staff how they liked working there, they always seemed pleased.

Ironically, it has been our obsession with credit and unbridled consumption that has got us into the global economic crisis, but it is stores like S&R that are paying the price. They never had their own credit card or "buy now pay later" schemes, but we have a debt to these unique urban places whose disappearance leaves us hollow in more ways than one.

This article originally appeared as an Op-Ed section of The Kingston Whig-Standard on April 18, 2009.