Local Business

A Local Commitment

Valley communities prove they have a lot to offer during the holidays, and all year round.

Home and Garden Gate is celebrating 20 years of business in Downtown Courtenay this year. “Shopping locally helps to create a vibrant community like Downtown Courtenay, rx and is one of the things that makes this such a great place to live,” says owner Jody Williams, in her Fifth Street shop.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Over the years there has evolved a plethora of so-called ‘Big Box’ stores in our community, and this is a merchandising reality that is showing no signs of abating.  And, understandably, the Costcos and Wal-Marts draw a great number of customers; especially in tight economic times such as ours today.

At the same time, however, there are those merchants that are more closely aligned with the local community, offering goods and services that can keep us in touch with what and who we are here in the Comox Valley.  And as Christmas approaches it is well to bear in mind the uniqueness of that which can be found by ‘shopping in all of our towns—Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland.

It’s worth the visit.

Such was the inspiration behind the Downtown Courtenay Business Improvement Association’s creation Winterfest 2012.  It all began on November 16 with a Moonlight and Magic spectacle and will be continuing every weekend right through to Christmas Eve.  It’s designed to be a showcase of all that Courtenay’s downtown has to offer in the realms of goods, services, entertainment and fun for the entire family.

There was a time when the merchants of Downtown Courtenay presented all the best of one of the unique smaller cities on Vancouver Island. The downtown core of Fifth and Cliffe area especially invited shoppers to an experience that was more than just the mere purveying of goods.  They also offered service and relationships with their customers both longtime and new.

The point being—and sometimes contemporary shoppers are losing sight of that—they still do.  And the point of Winterfest is to remind the public of that reality.  The allure is still there, as are unique goods and services that can’t be found elsewhere.  And that is exactly what happened with the opening night of Winterfest.

Much of the point behind the venture of arts, entertainment, festivity and merchandising was a drive by the DCBIA to lure people back to a downtown core that is admittedly in need of a big boost.

Winterfest, with the full support and involvement of BIA members, is providing the lubricant to bring the public to the core of the city.

How did this all come about?

“I guess it was my idea,” says Winterfest coordinator Meaghan Cursons. “But, in reality isn’t every new idea a combination of other examples, inspirations, middle-of-the-night epiphanies, Google and trial-and-error? I was asked to figure out a way to animate and excite downtown for the Christmas season with a very modest budget and not much time to work with.  Picking a theme for each weekend was a good way to promote the diversity of products and services to be found.”

She notes that she decided to focus on the six weekends rather than continuing through each week mainly to keep the energy levels high.

“Picking a theme for each weekend (and you can follow what is taking place each weekend on Facebook) was a good way to promote the diversity of products and services downtown,” Cursons says.

The Graham’s Jewellers clock is a fixture on Fifth Street. “I firmly believe that if you shop locally at an established business everybody wins in the long run,” says Graham’s Jewellers owner Jamie Graham.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

“There was such energy downtown,” she adds of Winterfest’s first weekend.  “I love it when our downtown feels like a real community; where pedestrians are more important than traffic. There was laughter, there was surprise, and there were dancers in Courtenay, for crying out loud. There was a nightlife—and this is what Courtenay can be.  It felt like an expression of what is possible.”

And it’s far from being over yet.

“I think the momentum will just keep building,” says Cursons.   “In particular the busking for charity has really taken off, with many Valley musicians playing downtown for donations to the charities of their respective choices. I’m especially looking forward to the three final weekends with ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and the Elevate Craft Bazaar. Meanwhile, ‘Winter Wonderland’ on the 15th of this month will have some incredible surprises and then the 22nd of December will see lots of caroling and a real old-fashioned Christmas vibe downtown. I’m a romantic at heart and that includes Christmas. I like the music and the village feel and the food and kindness.  I really hope we are embodying that over the weeks.”

Cursons is pleased with the way it has all come off.

“A number of people emphasized it was better than they’d anticipated, and that’s high praise indeed. I look at campaigns like these being about marketing, event planning and community development. The greatest strength of this event has been the willingness of downtown merchants and the arts community to come on board and believe in the intrinsic value of a good community celebration. My job has been to encourage that joy and celebration and then wrap a big bow around it and help communicate it to the whole community.  I think that downtown Courtenay and the other downtowns of the Comox Valley are bursting to express themselves. If I can help make that happen I’m a lucky gal.”

Others feel the same way about bringing the community to life and Courtenay merchants are first and foremost in extolling the virtues of their community.

“Downtown offers you both unique products and a unique experience,” says Robert A Couture owner, Jill Paterson.  “I think more than anything it’s the service aspect that really counts. We endeavor to go the extra mile for our customers because we value our relationship with them—a relationship that has been built up over the years.  Sometimes people drop by with no intention of making a purchase; they just come in to say ‘hi’.  We like that.  We like becoming friends with our customers.”

After 42 years in the same Fifth Streer location there is no question that Graham’s Jewellers has built up both a strong reputation due to the quality of its merchandise and the service it offers, but also due to its relationship with its countless customers.

“People lose sight of the very real value of shopping locally,” says owner, Jamie Graham.  “It’s understandable, but people do tend to forget when they shop locally the money stays in the community.  That’s vital for our local economy.  So, if people go out of town to shop, or if they shop in the big boxes, money leaves.  I mean, if you shop in a big box here a certain amount stays in the form of wages, but the rest exits.”

Graham concedes that sometimes better prices might be found elsewhere, albeit rarely, but is the shopper getting the quality he or she seeks?

“We’ve seen many times how people have bought an item elsewhere, but then they come to us to get it sized or fitted, so it kind of defeats their purpose,” he says.

More importantly, however—and he believes this is the message that must go out—is that people don’t always realize how much their trade matters to the local economy, the economy of the community in which they live.

“People don’t think a lot about it, and that’s understandable,” he says.  “I also realize that the search for the cheapest price is a reflection of the world economy at the moment.  But, I firmly believe that if you shop locally at an established business everybody wins in the long run.”

Vashti Lehrle and Nena Bill, co-owners of Secret Drawers Lingerie on Fifth St. believe that the most important facet of utilizing local merchants lies in the relationships that are established – relationships that last many years, Vashti says.

“Through personalized service you establish personal connections,” Lehrle says.  “We have customers whom we’ve seen from the time they were young girls, then married women, who later move away but then always come by when they’re back in town and we’re always delighted to see them.”

Also, adds Bill, with that personalized connection you also get personalized service.  Added to which, Secret Drawers offers a high-end quality product and specialized fitting services of the sort not to be found in the larger venues.

“I’m not suggesting that the big box stores don’t attempt to satisfy their customers, because they do, but customers still don’t have that tie,” says Bill.  “Here, if you have issues with a product you will get our attention and we’ll persist with the matter until you are satisfied.”

And as Secret Drawers also offers a quality product that may indeed cost a little more, Lehrle says the advantage is that in a ‘throwaway’ society it is a simple fact that quality lasts much longer and often proves to be less expensive in the long run.

Locally-owned shops like Otter’s Kitchen Cove in Comox offer unique gift ideas and quality items, as well as personalized service.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Jody Williams is the owner of Home and Garden Gate on Fifth Street in Downtown Courtenay and also a further shop in Cumberland, at 2720 Dunsmuir.

The Courtenay store has been a downtown fixture for 20 years now, and the Cumberland outlet has been around for seven.

‘Cumberland has a great downtown,” Williams says, “and we’re really happy to have opened there.  It’s a good place for walking and browsing in the shops and we’re always happy when somebody discovers us there.”

As for the advantages of shopping locally and keeping the downtown cores alive and well, Williams is straightforward:

“By supporting local businesses, you contribute to the economic health of the Comox Valley,” she says.  “Shopping locally helps to create a vibrant community like Downtown Courtenay, and is one of the things that makes this such a great place to live.”

The Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce is vitally interested in the promotion of a vibrant downtown Courtenay.  Chamber President and CEO Dianne Hawkins is unstinting in her praise for the impact of Winterfest and the active involvement of the downtown merchants in the grand opening event in November.

“The opening event was just amazing,” says Hawkins.  “It reminded me of when my mom and dad used to pack us kids up on Friday night and take us into town.  It felt so cool to be downtown on a Friday night.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen the merchants so happy.  It felt like home.”

As far as shopping locally is concerned, Hawkins, by the very nature of the Chamber mandate, could not emphasize the value of this more.

“We stress shopping locally to our membership and emphasize the point that this is not just for consumers, but that it is up to them to back the Chamber of Commerce and look to what their involvement means to the community at a broader level,” she says.  “The members must become engaged and we remind them they will only get out of it what they put into it.”

Terri Perrin, who handles marketing and communications at the Chamber, emphasizes that shopping locally should also mean looking into the sources of our products and services.

“We have to avoid being completely parochial and look only to Comox Valley owned businesses,” Perrin says.  “This could also include businesses originating elsewhere in BC, or even in Canada in general, if they are Canadian-owned.  We should support Canadian-made products and services.”

In terms of shopping locally, however, there is a certain caveat that must be entertained and reckoned with.  A local business might not be just a tried-and-true Comox Valley generated business.  Muddying the water a little bit is the franchise operation.

“Remember,” Perrin says, “franchises are often locally owned and therefore are every bit as much Comox Valley businesses as the more traditional or long-established ones, and they have to face the same marketplace challenges.”

As for the downtown and its challenges, Hawkins observes this is not a problem unique to Courtenay—you find it across North America these days.

“But, people will come out of loyalty,” she says.  “In this we all have to pull together.  Working together we have a bigger impact. Together we all win with a common good for all. We must remember it is small business that drives the BC economy and that is where the future lies.  Governments don’t create jobs; business does. And that’s why we have been so happy at the Chamber to promote Winterfest. It ties in with our new motto, which is Taking Care of Business.”

But wait, there’s more. The 12-Days of Christmas is a traditional seasonal offering and the Chamber is going to be putting a Comox Valley spin on the ditty, says Perrin.

“We rewrote The 12 Days with a Comox Valley flavor,” she says. “Our version is performed by the ‘Paisley Bandits’ (who donated their time and talent) and then was filmed in a performance at the Bridge by David Kooman of Unveiled Studios on November 30. We’re hoping the film will go viral.”

She points out that each Chamber member business has been asked for a $50 contribution toward the project and notes that some businesses have generously contributed $50 for various non-profit members.

“It’s all coming together,” Terry says, “And it’s been such fun to create it with all the verses having a local theme.”

The first verse, she says, revolves around the various locally-produced items that can be purchased, and the second focuses on charitable donations that can be made to assorted ventures that serve the public in need, such as the Salvation Army.

“This is our Merry Christmas from the Chamber,” she says.

More information can be found on the Chamber of Commerce Facebook page as well as at www.downtowncourtenay.com/winterfest.

While Winterfest was designed as a Courtenay phenomenon it, needless to say, has had impact on the greater community, which will benefit from the local shopping enthusiasm spillover.  We may not yet be one community in terms of governance but we certainly are a single de facto community. Consequently shopping invitations extend across a broad spectrum of options.

Comox and Cumberland too are looking to the Christmas season and are reaching out to the public with both entertainment and marketing ventures.

“All business associations are working together in the Comox Valley to encourage the public to support local businesses in their own communities as well as in the greater community,” says Kathy Penner, executive director of the Comox BIA.

While the major seasonal events in Comox took place the first weekend in December, the allure of shopping in the town will continue to attract customers right up until the day as merchants rally to accommodate the public.

“Our partnership with Filberg (Lodge and Park) worked really well last year and we had over 400 people come out to ‘play’ and we’re anticipating even more enthusiasm this year,” says Penner.  “This year Santa and his rock band Dukes of Dodge were aboard a flatbed truck, courtesy of Slegg Lumber, and kids and parents followed them down Comox Avenue and into the Mall.  Once inside the Mall there was face painting, balloon art, magic show and music by the band Rollicking Good Time. And Bobbi’s Deli served hot chocolate.”

The other event leading up to Christmas in Comox was their ‘Win a Trip to Vegas’ contest.  “This is a campaign to encourage more visitation to downtown Comox during the Christmas season,” says Penner, noting that 16 Comox businesses participated in this draw competition and participation and enthusiasm was excellent.

“The economies of all our communities are hugely influenced by the shopping habits of its citizens,” says Penner.  “In that context I have to encourage people to support Comox Valley businesses this Christmas season and year-round.  We all win that way and our money stays in the community.”

Some of the impact of shopping locally can be found in the site of the 10 Percent Shift, and it’s well-worth perusing, she says.  The site can be accessed at www.tenpercentshift.ca.

Meanwhile, back in her hometown of Cumberland, Meaghan Cursons notes that Cumberland does an “awesome” campaign called Christmas in the Village, which runs to December 14.  The weekend of December 7 and 8 there is late night shopping with merchants showing off all the eclectic items to be found on the historic streets of the village, including handmade chocolates, arts and crafts, designer boots and garments and much more.

“Cumberland’s downtown is such a great place to hang out and, of course, the music and arts scene is second to none,” Cursons says.

And Cumberland does not forget those for whom Christmas isn’t always a time of great merriment.  “On December 14 we have a big community fundraiser at the Waverly for local emergency shelters,” she says.

“Musicians know better than many that the Christmas season isn’t merry for everyone.  Many folks struggle with mental health, addictions, poverty, family disconnect and insecure housing and they suffer at this time of year.  The event is called Food, Shelter, Music, and it’s all about sharing some love and kindness and generosity.”

Performing at the event will be Mary Murphy, Jilli Martini, Blaine Dunaway, Paisley Bandits, Brodie Dawson, Jack Roland and Archie Pateman, Annie Barker, Bobby Herron, Corwin Fox, Helen Austin, Pamela Tessman and Fiftieth Parallel.

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