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Verdict on street-closing “walkabouts” a mixed bag

Tara Jeffrey Helen Van Sligtenhorst says she just wants a seat at the table when decisions are made that impact her downtown Sarnia business.
Not all downtown businesses were thrilled with an experiment that closed Christina Street to vehicle traffic on weekends this summer. Tara Jeffrey

Tara Jeffrey

Helen Van Sligtenhorst says she just wants a seat at the table when decisions are made that impact her downtown Sarnia business.

“It would be nice for a dialogue to happen, instead of just — ‘this is how it’s going to be,’” said the owner of Harbour Bay Clothing on Front Street, referring to the ‘Weekend Walkabout’ pedestrian-friendly street closures that blocked off a portion of Christina Street every weekend for most of the summer.

She and a number of other downtown business owners say the concept was poorly planned, with little to no input from merchants themselves.

“It’s not that we were against it,” Van Sligtenhorst said. “We just felt like we were not at the table where discussions were happening at the grassroots level.

“We were never even invited to a meeting where we could talk about this.”

Earlier this summer, Sarnia City Council approved a request from the Sarnia-Lambton Chamber of Commerce to run the ‘Weekend Walkabout’ from July 9 to Sept. 5, closing Christina Street from George to Davis streets from 4 p.m. Fridays until 8 p.m. Sundays.

At the time, Van Sligtenhorst told council — on behalf of nine downtown businesses including her own — that they opposed the plan due to the “lack of parking and negative impact it would have on the retail industry.”

Other businesses wrote to council supporting the plan, including Greens Organic Cafe, Ups N’ Downs, and One Tooth.

“But their minds were already made up as far as I’m concerned,” said Christine Thomas, owner of Lilith Boutique on Christina Street, who is moving to the Northgate Plaza.

“I’m so sick of the parking issues down here and the Chamber, I’m leaving downtown.”

Thomas, who is normally closed Sundays, said it wasn’t feasible for her to extend weekend hours, given she works on her own and hasn’t been able to hire extra help during the pandemic.

“There was no consideration, whatsoever.”

Van Sligtenhorst added that customers ran into difficulty picking up their items at places like Junior Baker on Lochiel Street.

Some weekends featured organized events, such as the International Symphony Orchestra’s music live series, the Sarnia Street Cruisers, and outdoor performances by the Imperial Theatre.

“But they were doing it on their own,” Van Sligtenhorst noted. “The Chamber really did not invest dollars into bringing entertainment down here. They just said — we’re closing the streets, you guys figure it out.”

She’d like to see the Chamber propose to close the street for, say, one weekend in July and August, for a downtown-wide event with vendors and sidewalk-sales.

Chamber CEO Allan Calvert said he’s well aware of the concerns from the business owners but stressed “you can’t please everyone all the time.”

“One of the shortcomings was, we could have marked parking better,” he said, adding that poor weather and low turnout were noted some weekends.

“Having said that, we had our supporters, and they want us to do it next year.”

Plans are already underway for a summer 2022 walkabout — with some changes — that aim to be more accommodating, Calvert said.

“We maybe won’t do every weekend… and we’ll work closer with the downtown businesses,” he said. “We’re anxious to work with them on whatever initiatives will help drive business there.”

Van Sligtenhorst said she’s confident communication between the Chamber and local businesses will be more positive.

“Everyone has learned from this experience,” she said. “And there will be growth happening.”

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