Totem Mall turns the big 3-0

On Nov. 5, 1980, the feature story on the front page of the Alaska Highway News announced that Ronald Reagan had replaced Jimmy Carter in the White House. The second story was headlined 'At last - city shopping mall opens."

The Totem Mall is just about to turn 30 and if that were not enough, there is another milestone the popular shopping centre is about to honour.

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Leases have recently been nailed down that will see the mall at full occupancy for the first time in 16 years.

"We are pushing hard so that the [tenants] that are going to be open to give us full occupancy should be open within a week before Christmas," said Rob Schlitt, property and operations manager for the mall's management company, Edgecombe.

"It will be filled."

At this point they can only confirm the lease of Dollarama, a Montreal-based dollar store, but other new tenants will be announced soon, Schlitt said.

He said full occupancy has significant meaning for the mall and the town.

"It means two things. It means that Fort St. John's economy is doing well, because there is an interest in coming into the City. It also means that there is renewed interest in the mall itself. That is good. Progress takes time. There are other projects that are going to come up. Eventually, we will have a lot of the problems fixed - a better-looking mall. Some paint, things like that."

An increased tenant-base means more capital available for mall improvements, he added.

Diane Miller, who now manages the Orange Julius at the mall, remembers the opening in 1980.

"I remember that it was a real big thing that Zeller's was here, at that time they had their 'blue light' specials. That brought a lot of people down. It was a very busy, vibrant place," she reminisced.

She said it was really the only mall of its size when it opened its doors.

"There were smaller things uptown, near where On the Rocks is now, but not a lot. This was the largest scale mall in Fort St. John at that time. It was a big thing."

Miller left Fort St. John in 1981, but returned four years ago. She noticed a lot of changes that had taken place over that 25 year period.

"Safeway was gone and the theatre was here. Zellers was even gone There was a lot of changes. The smoke shop was gone and there used to be a toy store."

Dusty Smith opened Rainbow Studio, a photography store, in 1988, making him the longest-standing tenant currently in the mall.

"I think that is true," he said.

The biggest change between then and now, he explained, is the wholesale shift from film to digital photography.

"Digital photography was not even a thought in anybody's mind. That is the only major difference. Then it was all film and today it is all digital."

He noted that the first digital camera, a Canon, was announced at $1,599 retail but by the time it hit his shelves a few short months later it had already dropped $200.

"Now they are $500 and they are three times the camera that these first ones were," he chuckled.

He said turnover in mall ownership has led to numerous changes over the years. About five owners ago, it was decided to move towards an 'outlet' style of mall.

"One of them wanted to make this like a strip mall, no corridor in the centre, everybody would have an outside door. That went over really well until somebody pointed out, 'what is going to happen at 40 below?' That is why Mark's Work Wearhouse only has an outside entrance."

Farin Ellwood, also with Edgecombe, said there seems to be a renewed interest in Totem Mall.

"We even have people come in and walk around the mall in the morning, so that common area use just brings the community together I think."

As the exact date the mall opened was unknown to management until Alaska Highway News investigated it, Ellwood explained that much of the birthday celebrations have already taken place.

"We did most of our celebrations in June. We had a big two-week sale. We had a big day for the kids and everything. It actually turned out really good. People have been in awe that we have been here this long. They are saying '30 years - really?'"

Schlitt said that clean-up effort after the massive flood July 29 is almost complete.

"It is progressing very well, there has been a lot of activity here over the last couple of months. It took a long time and there was a lot of damage that we found out about after the fact."

The cost has been in excess of $1 million, he said.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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