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TERRENCE MCEACHERN: As Charlottetown Mall deals with empty retail space, downtown business picks up

Hailee Young, left, and Ashley Gallant check out the sign in the Charlottetown Mall on Thursday announcing that Booster Juice is a new tenant. The space was previously occupied by Juice Co.
Hailee Young, left, and Ashley Gallant check out the sign in the Charlottetown Mall on Thursday announcing that Booster Juice is a new tenant. The space was previously occupied by Juice Co. - Terrence McEachern

Just when you think you’ve got things sort of figured out, someone throws you a curve.

Last week, I strolled through the Charlottetown Mall and counted 11 empty store spaces. Some of the empty spaces were once home to Mappins, Sport Chek (which moved across the mall aisle), Christmas Discounters and two in the food court, to name a few.

The most recent to leave was Juice Co. After 10 years as a tenant, owners Robi and Sharie Hughes signed a month-to-month lease before being asked to vacate by Dec. 31.

All of this came at the same time as an announcement in October that mall owner RioCan was planning to shed 100 properties in Canada in the next two to three years to focus on major markets. At the time, a spokesperson for RioCan said it would be “business as usual” at the Charlottetown Mall and more information would be provided as the sale process unfolds.

Eleven empty spaces and giving the boot to a long-term tenant is business as usual? I tried contacting the same spokesperson for an update on the mall’s status but didn’t hear back.  

I’m not sure what to make of this. Maybe the mall is close to being sold and no longer looking for tenants.

The curve in that theory came up this week in the form of a large Booster Juice “coming soon” sign in the spot previously occupied by Juice Co.

Hughes suspected that the mall had a franchise lined up to take over his former spot, and it looks like he was right.

If Booster Juice signed a five-year lease, then maybe the company knows something we don’t about the mall’s future.

Related: Juice Co. looking for downtown location, no longer occupies Charlottetown Mall space

I reached out to Booster Juice this week to ask them several questions, including the terms of the lease and to speak with the franchise owner. Instead, I was told the company’s president and CEO would give me a call. He didn’t.

I did chat with Shaun Patterson from the business department at Holland College about this. He wonders why anyone would want to put a business in a mall these days.

Malls had their “heyday” and tenants could justify paying premium lease prices because of the traffic generated by major brand anchor stores. But those anchor stores are quickly disappearing from malls, and so too is the traffic they generated.

Let’s be fair. The mall recently signed on Urban Planet and H&M as tenants, and Winners, Sport Chek and Dollarama are noticeably busy.

But retail is also noticeably expanding downtown. 

Patterson explains one reason is that street-level stores in downtown Charlottetown have more flexible lease options for owners to grow the business.

Downtown is where Hughes and his wife are looking to put a second Juice Co. (They also have a location in the Petro-Canada on University Avenue.) With tourist traffic in the summer, it seems like a smart place to be.

But finding a place downtown isn’t as easy as it sounds, explains Hughes.

That’s another interesting curve in this discussion. Usually it’s a city’s downtown core that is looking for tenants and in need of revitalization.

I haven’t looked at the stats, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of empty retail spaces in downtown Charlottetown.

New restaurants have been popping up. Kettle Black and Upstreet Craft Brewing are expanding on Kent Street next month. Even The Book Emporium is expanding into an adjacent space on Queen Street (who knew the used book business was doing so well?).

I guess time will tell what the future of the Charlottetown Mall is. Maybe Booster Juice is a sign that things are on the upswing.

But it’s exciting to see the downtown trending upwards, especially for those of us who live in the city core. For retailers having a hard time to find a spot downtown, supply should eventually catch up. Let’s look at it this way. Compared to other cities struggling to revitalize their downtown core, having more demand than supply for downtown retail space seems like a good, short-term, problem to have.

Terrence McEachern is The Guardian's provincial business reporter. He can be reached at terrence.mceachern@theguardian.pe.ca, and at Twitter.com/terry_mcn

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