Ron Paulson, Port Alberni city councillor, cuts the ribbon to officially open the new Wendy’s restaurant in the Alberni Mall complex, May 23, 2022. (JERRY FEVENS PHOTO)

Ron Paulson, Port Alberni city councillor, cuts the ribbon to officially open the new Wendy’s restaurant in the Alberni Mall complex, May 23, 2022. (JERRY FEVENS PHOTO)

PROGRESS 2022: Alberni Mall thrives on reinvention

Mall is built on memories and community

The 10th Avenue Plaza, where Shoppers Drug Mart is now located, was the first “mall” built in Port Alberni. The Alberni Mall on Johnston Road was the second. And while 10th Avenue Plaza still has a number of businesses in operation, anchored at each end by Scotiabank and Shoppers Drug Mart, it doesn’t have the lingering caché of the big mall at the north end of the city.

“It was a gathering place,” recalled Cindy Solda, a councillor with the City of Port Alberni and Solda family member by marriage. The iconic Solda’s Restaurant was one of the first places to go into the mall when it first opened, and it was one of the last to leave, she said.

Kenn Whiteman ran youth projects for the federal government’s Youth Employment Strategy from 1998-2001, moving to the mall after the first couple of years. “We had anywhere from eight to 15 young people working on community events at the mall,” he said. “Anything to do with bringing people into the mall.”

Halloween and Christmas parties were popular with families. The centre court hosted events like the Boy Scouts’ soapbox derby, baby photo competition and celebrations for numerous community groups. “The mall was the focal point of the whole community,” said Whiteman. “It was a place to go to: when it was raining people would go there to walk.”

When the mall closed, around 2000 when Walmart and Pacific Rim Centre across the street were being developed, many of the stores moved into locations around town: places like Capelli Hair Design, Solda’s, Twin Travel, Salmonberry’s Emporium and Mark’s Work Wearhouse.

“De-malling” is not a new trend: large malls with interior retail spaces are becoming sparse as franchises and chain stores look at opening individual stores with their own entrances. Large malls in urban centres are being turned into a combination of condos, stores and community spaces.

While some lament the change to Port Alberni’s mall, others, like Jan Lavertu of Westcoast Home Hardware, welcomed it. He announced in the spring of 2012 that he was going to take over the 8,000-square-foot area that was formerly Safeway, creating a second anchor to the mall revitalization. Canadian Tire already anchored the other side of the mall.

“We were landlocked (on Third Avenue),” Lavertu said. “We felt this part of the community (North Port) was where most of the retail commerce was going to be. It made sense to move next to our competitors.”

He has never regretted the move: it gave him visibility as well as room to expand. “I think it was a smart move (on the former owners’ part) to cut back from an interior mall to a (strip) mall,” he said.

Home Hardware’s commitment to the revamped mall was the catalyst for development. The Brick owner Garth Hamilton moved his store from Third Avenue into a larger space at Alberni Mall. As interior spaces were renovated into individual storefronts, different businesses moved in and out. Boston Pizza was built. In 2021 BMO moved its bank into a new building on the property, now operated by Bayfield Property Management Inc. On May 23, 2022 Wendy’s opened its much-anticipated fast food restaurant beside BMO and in front of Home Hardware.

There is only one vacant storefront at the mall, says Lavertu, making the transformation of Alberni Mall almost complete.

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The pipes and drums band performs during an undated Christmas event in the centre court at the old Alberni Mall. The area was a focal point for numerous community events. (SONJA DRINKWATER/ Special to the AV News)

The pipes and drums band performs during an undated Christmas event in the centre court at the old Alberni Mall. The area was a focal point for numerous community events. (SONJA DRINKWATER/ Special to the AV News)