Digging it

Like Boston, another seaport city, Summerside Prince Edward Island has been enduring its own big dig. Both seemed to go on for the same interminable length of time — in Summerside’s case it took seven years to complete — and a new cityscape has emerged.

Now that it has been built, will the people come?

‘We need to get people into new habits,” says Lynn Nicholson, the fourth-generation owner of Crockett’s Quality Jewellers. “Their old parking space may be gone but there’s parking in behind and connectors to the streets. Plus, with the new sidewalks, we’ll be able to bring people into the downtown to enjoy patios during the summer months. Before the ‘big dig’, that wasn’t possible. We went about the ‘big dig’ the right way and the improvements that were made won’t have to be re-done for a long time to come.”

But that’s not the only change happening in downtown Summerside. The former Waterfront Mall is being transformed into Holland College’s waterfront campus, bringing students into the downtown. The old Holman’s building is now the home of the provincial department of education. Established businesses have changed hands or expanded and new ones have opened their doors. All of which, combined, means there’s a new hustle in Summerside’s bustle. And local businesspeople like what they see.

Hot spot The coffee pot is always on at Samuel’s Coffee Shop, which opened during the final stage of the ‘big dig’ in mid-2011. It’s named after one of owner Moyna Murphy-Matheson’s ancestors, Captain Samuel Holland, the surveyor who divided the Island into 67 lots in the mid-1760s. She’s transformed a former bank into a cheery ‘coffice’: a coffee shop/office which is attracting, among others, a growing number of self-employed local folks. She also envisions it as a gathering place for people who come to the Island as summer visitors — a spot to drop in for some coffee and baked goods where they know they can get a reliable and free signal to keep in touch with folks back home via wi-fi.

“We have restored the bank vault and you can rent it for meetings,” she says.

Holland isn’t the only ancestor she thinks of as she operates her business. Her grandfather, J.E. Dalton, was an entrepreneur in Summerside, owning, among other things, a drug store and the Clifton Hotel, so she’s following closely in his footsteps.

“I spent a year planning the business,” Matheson says, “It’s great to be in the downtown as part of this new beginning, just to see how things will develop.”

In full bloom Her enthusiasm is shared by Joanne MacDonald. She and her husband, Lea, have upped stakes and moved to the Island from Brandon, Manitoba, to take over Kelly’s Flower Shop.

“My husband is from Cape Breton and we decided to raise our kids on the East Coast,” MacDonald says. “So I put out some feelers on Kijiji for businesses for sale in Halifax, Dartmouth, and on the Island. I got about 50 responses and the one that kept coming into my head was the flower shop.”

The rest, they say, is history. The family moved east, although her husband still has some obligations out west. The other twist in the tale is that, in her previous life, she was an esthetician with no experience in the f loral business. However, she felt that this was the right path to take and, with the help of her exceptional staff, she’s quickly learning the ropes.

“I love it because flowers make people happy and it feels like I’ve been here forever,” she adds.

Love seats (and more) With the transformation of the Waterfront Mall into Holland College, Don McDonald, of Home Furniture, is moving his business down the road. It’s a wise move — across the street from his other business, Callbeck’s Home Hardware Building Centre. After a long career working for Callbeck’s, he bought the business in 2007 and, the following year opened the furniture franchise at the Waterfront Mall.

“When we went into the mall, there were a few women’s wear stores, the liquor store, and the grocery store,” he said. “But buying furniture is a different process than buying a dress. You don’t do it very often and you usually go to several places, either here in Summerside, or you drive to Charlottetown, before you make your decision.”

He’s optimistic the new location will be conducive to sales. Its presence will add to a small ‘power centre’ in the neighbourhood. It joins the hardware store, an electrical shop, a home decor store, and a flooring store.

“Now you’ll be able to park in one place and walk to all of these stores,” McDonald says. “It’s going to be good for all of us because we aren’t in direct competition with each other but we’re making our area one-stop shopping for all of those items.”

Long-term relationship Peter Brown, a property developer and former interim head of Downtown Summerside Inc., is well aware of the ups and downs that Summerside has experienced over the last number of years and hopes the revived downtown will inspire future city-wide prosperity.

“We were living in Vancouver in 1988 and reached the point where it was getting too crazy to live there,” Brown recalls. “We decided we’d head back home to P.E.I. when the government closed CFB Summerside. What were we going to do? We decided to come home and got into some land development plans. Then things started to turn around with the establishment of the GST Centre, which brought several hundred white collar employees into the town, and we started to see Summerside pulling itself up by its bootstraps.”

He anticipates that the current momentum will continue to grow. For a small city, Summerside has many big city amenities including its hospital, museum, theatre, and Credit Union Place (the city’s sports and concert venue) which attracted Sir Elton John last year. It’s also a short 45-minute drive between Charlottetown and Summerside — something that those who come from ‘away’ think is heaven compared to commutes in places like Montreal and Toronto. And, for those who want to attend a concert, it’s a short drive across the Confederation Bridge from the mainland.

“We have so many things going for us, like the waterfront, and our boardwalk, which is always in use, and our connection to the Confederation Trail. There are lots of things to attract people to live in our downtown.”

He’s also thinking of where things can go next.

“We are already training officers for cruise ships at Holland College. Maybe our next step is to buy an old cruise ship, keep it in our wonderful harbour, and train people to work in positions on the ship. After all, it’s basically a floating hotel, and we’re already training people in that field at Holland College. They can study here and go on little cruises around the Island to get hands-on experience.”

“We’re pleased with all the work that’s happened downtown,” Summerside’s mayor Basil Stewart says. “It’s improved the look of the city. However when you start this type of work, tearing up the street, building new sidewalks and planting trees, it’s an inconvenience to the business community but, at the end of the day, it looks nice. (If) we don’t modernize and change, we’ll be left in the dust.”

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