More restaurants, longer hours wanted in Petrolia says study

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$262,500.

That’s how much money a new study on downtown Petrolia suggests students from LCCVI spend during the school year in town – mostly at lunch.

The estimate was a bit of a shock to Laurissa Ellsworth, director of marketing, arts and communications for Petrolia and Leena Bourne, Downtown Revitalization Coordinator, Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership, who authored the study.

The project – funded through a Rural Economic Development grant from the province – aimed to find ways to keep Petrolia’s downtown strong. A similar study was done for Forest.

Ellsworth says the town has talked to residents and visitors – particularly those coming to Victoria Playhouse Petrolia – about what they would like to see in the downtown in the past, but not the students who flood downtown streets at lunch each day during the school year.

Bourne says the students are making a sizable economic impact calling it “truly a big deal.”

The students, like the 366 members of the public who took a survey – were looking for a better choice of restaurants in the downtown – particularly for dining in.

Sixty per cent of the students were looking for more fast food options and 12 per cent wanted more restaurants. Fifty-two per cent of the public wanted additional or diverse restaurant choices.

Bourne says residents also want more places to shop.

“People were asking for a bit more diversity in the downtown businesses just meaning they want a few more places to shop, and a few more places to sit down and eat…other than that, they’re wanting to see those storefronts filled.”

Of the 113 buildings in the downtown area, eight are vacant. Some have been largely unused for decades including the former Hymes Store which has recently been sold.

Acting Mayor Joel Field says the town recently enacted a new vacant building bylaw which requires the buildings to be maintained. Letters have been sent to some landlords to improve their facades.

“We need to look at all the buildings and look at where there’s delinquent property owners that need to make some improvements. It’s not fair to the other businesses to be beside an empty building,” he says.

Aside from the vacant buildings, about 32 per cent of the public said the businesses in the downtown are not open during the hours they shop. It’s a problem which has been noted before and something the revitalization project tried to help with early on, according to Ellsworth.

“We did actually take a couple of tentative action steps in approaching the businesses to suggest a pilot program to stay open longer hours during the summer theatre season because a lot of those comments were theater patrons or visitors to the community – a few residents as well though – saying that they worked and then they weren’t home in time.

“We took an approach with funding part of the cost of a staff member for them to open even on a Sunday or for that extra couple of hours. And it wasn’t really something that was well supported within the downtown businesses that we were able to approach,” she says adding “right now, there’s just not that appetite.”

Field agrees. “I can’t tell them when to open their businesses. I think it is a hard one to sell.”

And while store hours may be an issue for the buying public, Bourne says there is also concern about what the downtown will look like in the next five years. Of the 53 owners who filled out the revitalization survey, half said they were considering retirement or selling their business.

Bourne says that’s one area the revitalization group plans to offer to help.
“You have to start thinking about retiring the second you open your business, because its all about planning for your future, not just about putting your For Sale sign up,” Bourne says.

“We want to do sort of an education piece for our business district, because the municipality is always looking five years ahead – or more – so we need to sort of look at what the downtown will look like, in five, 10, 15 years because we’re seeing some of the data in the business owner survey, …they want to retire some time. They’re not going to have their business with them forever. People do retire people move on to different career ventures.”