Edwina Nearhood: High commercial vacancies an opportunity for Fort St. John


There's evidence of a growing vacancy of commercial space in Fort St. John. A review of MLS statistics show more than 170,000 square feet of vacant commercial space within city boundaries. This doesn't include any parcels zoned industrial. STOP. Don’t panic.

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Every statistic tells a story. There are many factors to consider. Fort St. John has an aging commercial sector. Numerous buildings have been or are in need of redevelopment. It would be very interesting to research how much commercial space has been constructed in the community over the past three years. (So much to do, so little time.)

Why are the buildings vacant? Economic challenges, companies outgrowing existing space, foreclosure, e-commerce competition? Are our local residents Loving Fort St. John as our Chamber of Commerce has been promoting?

Communities throughout North America are facing the very real challenges associated with e-commerce competition. The struggle is real as box stores squeeze out the small local business and parcel delivery is epidemic at many curbs. There is a demand for more, more, more.

Perhaps our communities can take some consideration to their buying habits as the Marie Kondo Joy of Life phenomenon makes its way across the nation. Support of local artisans and food producers is a testimony to the level of enjoyment of their products.

A community business advisory board is an opportunity to strategically research and develop a plan to understand the current state of the business community, address any challenges impacted by policy, economy, neighbouring communities, etc. Such a board could identify opportunities for capacity building.

I'm not concerned with high commercial vacancy in the community. I see an opportunity. Fort St. John and area is known for the high number of entrepreneurs per capita. Small and medium-sized business are what builds community. When there is high vacancy I see an opportunity to support numerous small business. I often hear of numerous small operators wanting to grow bigger but struggling with finding the space to get started or staff to service their needs.

Affordable incubator space offers an opportunity to grow capacity. Perhaps there are opportunities to get businesses, property owners, and grant writers together to build capacity.

We have seen several small businesses open and grow over the past few years, despite the down turn in the economy. There are numerous organizations in the region to support growth. Community Futures and Northern Development Inititiative Trust offer training, workshops, and funding opportunities. The college works with the community to build training programs and capacity.

We have a very large resource of volunteers in the community. A program director could offer supports and structure to help those not for profits build capacity. When not for profits build capacity, they can grow their organizations. When organizations grow, there are stronger community supports and need for more space to grow.

There appears to be a trend of capacity building within communities. What are those needs? Home care supports, affordable day care, affordable meal programming, small business kitchens, locally grown and operated food box programs, a local whole food market, artisan markets, business building and branding.

Our community has artisans that sell internationally. Our community has a world of ecotourism out its back door. Our community has opportunity after opportunity to grow the leaders that are already here.

We have the ELC NPSS Grade 10 campus that does a community project each spring. The projects many of these future leaders create have capacity to continue and grow. Work with them. Watch their innovation and social responsibility.

Now, back to that high volume of vacant commercial space: What dreams lie within?

Edwina Nearhood is a life-long resident of Fort St. John, with 30 years experience in the appraisal industry.

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