As the year 2000 begins, Main Street in Whitehorse, Yukon, is the vibrant retail heart of the city. Not always vibrant in the economic sense, it is the place where people go, where the hot dog stands and the buskers help to create a truly friendly atmosphere. City Council, however, has now committed to spending massive amounts of taxpayers' money to destroy the businesses along Main Street, by assisting a British Columbia company to build a large mall on the edge of the city's industrial area.
The Yukon's economy can best be described as being 'in the toilet'. World mineral prices and/or 'environmentalists' have closed most of our mines, which has been the foundation of our economy for virtually all of the past century. Tourism, touted by all levels of government as the economy of the future, gives near-minimum-wage jobs to a few hundred people (most from Outside) for a few weeks, after which time they go back on the dole (excuse me, I mean "Employment Insurance") for another 8 months.
In this economic climate, there is enormous controversy over announcements that the City and Territorial governments are giving away approximately $1.5 million to help build a new mall in a location far from downtown. To make matters, worse, the mall is not being developed by locals, but by Argus Properties, based in Kelowna, BC. Argus estimates the cost of construction, on a former marsh at the northern entrance to Whitehorse, at $35 million. They have not indicated who the anchor or any other tenants will be in the 10,800 square meters of space (116,000 square feet). Rumous include retail giants Costco and Staples.
News of the upcoming project first came to people's attention in early October 1999, when members of City Council discussed signing a Memorandum of Agreement with the developer to provide services to the property under consideration. In November, they voted 4-3 to waive a rule that forces developers to set aside 10 percent of their land for public use - schools, parks, open space or other similar uses. The cost of this unprecedented donation alone, originally reported by the City to be $81,385, has turned out to be a quarter of a million dollars!
There are no absolute numbers to work with in assessing the value of, and costs of, the mall project to the community. The opponents of the project say that no new money will be created, the current disposable income will just be spread among more businesses. To many business owners just barely hanging on now, that spells bankruptcy. The City maintains that people who now shop Outside will shop in Whitehorse because of the better selection that will be available at the new stores. The City refuses to acknowledge the fact that the mall will, irregardless, kill one of the last true "Main Streets" in North America.
Ted Callahan, managing director of Argus, promises economic advantages to all Yukoners, though he has no figures to back up that theory. There is, however extensive evidence to the contrary from across North America. Malls kill communities. Just ask Al Norman, the force behind a campaign to stop the spread of malls - he has an extensive web site called Sprawl Busters.
The City also proposes to pave one of the last pieces of wetlands close to downtown, primarily to provide easy access to the mall, at a cost of about $2 million. This despite a study commissioned in 1992 saying that such a road would not be needed until the population reaches 25,000 - a figure we are getting further away from every month.
On March 3, 2000, 12 downtown businesses launched a court challenge of the City's right to waive development and other charges to assist the mall project. A group of Whitehorse residents who are not involved directly in business (we're all involved indirectly) have also banded to oppose the project, and informal conversations with some of these people indicate that things could get very ugly as construction season nears - the group is called Citizens' Coalition for Responsible Planning.
The members of Whitehorse City Council who voted against the initial grant to Argus, and against paving the wetlands to provide access to the mall, were
Voting for both proposals were
This will certainly be an issue in the next election.
I moved to the Yukon because I love the feel of it. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people here who obviously wish they were somewhere else (Mayor Watson being on top of my list in that category). The result is that we get bizarre projects that attempt to make Whitehorse look like Calgary or Vancouver. I am strongly opposed to the mall, and will do anything I can to stop construction, and to make it possible for the members of Council who voted for the project to finalize their committments in Whitehorse so that they can move to whichever city it is they would really like to be in.
This is not about progress or the lack of it - this is about having a real community or an American-strip-mall wannabe. We have a few people in power in Whitehorse (temporarily) who are determined to bulldoze every remnant of Northern personality left.
Does "progress" have to mean the destruction of a community's identity and personality? I don't believe that it does.