Some retailers at the Port of Sydney Development Corporation’s downtown marine terminal say plans to diversify business operations seem to be showing early signs of success, but the corporation’s plans for further commercial development are on hold, for now.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the cruise ship industry for two years and port CEO Marlene Usher said losing nearly 70 per cent of the marine terminal’s revenues exposed the weakness of relying on only one major source of income.
As a result, the port has brought in a wider range of businesses and extended hours of operation to attract local shoppers to the Joan Harriss Pavilion and its giant fiddle statue.
“We’ve been labelled as a cruise pavilion,” Usher said. “We want to be more than that. We want to become a destination that is kind of top-of-mind, if somebody’s looking for a gift or something, they say, ‘Well, let’s go downtown and maybe we’ll drop down to the fiddle, because they have some wonderful shops, as well.”
New businesses include food shops, an art store and a hair stylist who specializes in locally made beard-grooming supplies.
The retailers used to offer products aimed mostly at tourists and the cruise ship traffic and were only open on days when cruise ships were visiting, but the new mix offers something for local residents and shops are open all week.
The pavilion has room for 18 businesses and they are all full, said Usher, but not everyone was happy with the changes.
“In doing so, we did lose some old tenants, because really it didn’t fit what they were trying to do,” Usher said. “They were trying just to market to cruise.”
Rachel Colford, one of three owners of Fae Curio Artisanal Collective, an art and curiosities shop that opened about two weeks ago inside the pavilion foyer, said business has been surprisingly good.
“Yeah, we’re all very excited,” Colford said.
“It was certainly a risk, but I feel that it is paying off. It’s exceeded our expectations so far.”
The shop displays products from its owners as well as about 40 other curiosity makers from around the Maritimes.
“We’re seeing a lot of local support, which is what we really want to do,” Colford said as a local woman browsed the shelves and counter tops.
“We want to be a benefit and value to the community, not only a tourist store. There will be tourists who come, of course, but we want the community to find value and want to be here, find things for themselves, gifts for others, home decor — all of those things.”
Johanna Edwards works at Hippy Hemp, a clothing and knick-knack shop tucked in behind the lighthouse in the pavilion foyer.
The store opened long before the pandemic, and while business was sparse the last couple of years, it is picking up, said Edwards.
The change away from touristy shops has been welcome, she said.
“We’ve got a hair stylist and us, ourselves, we have clothes,” Edwards said. “It seems more like a local business mini-mall than a tourist attraction thing now.”
The financially troubled One Ocean Expeditions is storing a sea container of equipment and some Zodiac boats on the dock and Usher said there is talk of the company offering harbour tours this summer.
The company avoided bankruptcy about 18 months ago with a court-approved creditor protection agreement, but the company has since defaulted on that deal.
According to trustee PricewaterhouseCoopers, it is now up to creditors to go after One Ocean Expeditions to try to recover any assets.
Usher said the company has not signed a deal with the marine terminal to host harbour tours, yet, but will be expected to live up to the terms once that is done.
One Ocean founder Andrew Prossin declined to comment.
Expansion plans on hold, for now
The port has plans to create an indoor urban market in its spacious Pittman Hall room and it wants to infill part of the cove, extend the boardwalk across it and add some shops to the walkway.
But those plans are on hold, waiting on investment from the port corporation’s owner — Cape Breton Regional Municipality — and for the port’s financial recovery from the pandemic, Usher said.
Meanwhile, the port is hoping to attract new customers by holding an event called Shop the Fiddle on Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., with entertainment, activities and prizes.
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