Port Alberni’s Uptown district is looking a little brighter.
Uptown Port Alberni, formerly a bustling city hub, has been suffering for a number of years due to the closure of businesses. Despite a redevelopment study taken on by the city in 2007, and improvements made to the empty Zellers building by the Coulson Group of Companies, the Uptown area has garnered a reputation for vacant retail space and property crime.
But a number of people see the Uptown area as an opportunity.
The Uptown Merchants Association meets once a month to discuss improvements for the area around Third Avenue and Argyle Street. Members of the association have come to city council on more than one occasion, where they have described the area as “a neighbourhood in transition.”
Chris Washington, the chair of the Uptown Merchants Association and the co-owner of Flandangles Kitchen and Gifts, would agree.
“I like the funkiness,” said Washington. “It’s old, it’s historical. You get a feeling here that you do not get on the Johnston Road corridor. I think it could be a really neat community gathering place. Every other community these days seems to have that. We need to work on it.”
Flandangles has been open for 34 years, and although the business spent its first 10 years at the Alberni Mall in North Port, Washington said she is enjoying the current location on Third Avenue. Flandangles recently expanded into the space next door with Gibson’s Fine Linens, offering linens and accessories for bathrooms, bedrooms and kitchens. A grand opening is scheduled for Thursday, June 13.
“It’s been amazing. The community has supported us 100 percent,” said Washington. “I keep hearing comments that we’ve needed a place like this for so long.”
In just the last few months, there has been plenty of excitement brewing in the Uptown area. A new brewery on Third Avenue (Dog Mountain Brewing) is getting ready to open later this year. Businesses like Double R Meats, Cloud City and the Power of Three recently received Community Excellence Awards. A new dollar store has relocated from Colwood to the Uptown Port Alberni area. Full of Beans Play Cafe has been turning the area into a family-friendly hangout spot, with events like Kids Can Cook and Tots Can Cook classes. And a new market will be taking the streets this summer, the outdoor Arrowsmith View Market, starting on June 19.
One of the business owners investing in the Uptown is Port Alberni’s own mayor, Sharie Minions. She and her husband, Colin, are the owners of a vegan restaurant in Tofino called Bravocados and are hoping for a June opening for their newest venture, Brie & Barrel.
The concept of Brie & Barrel was formed very quickly. It started in December 2018, when Sharie and Colin went to Sidney, B.C. and had dinner at a wine bar.
“I thought, this is exactly what we need in Port Alberni,” said Sharie.
Brie & Barrel has since evolved into a full restaurant with handmade, high-end pastas and a focus on wine and whiskey. Customers can expect to find risotto, bruschetta, charcuterie and cheese plates, as well as a few specialty vegan dishes.
“We hope people will come for the wine and stay for the delicious food,” Sharie laughed.
Shortly after looking into the concept and potential properties, Sharie and Colin chose the former Carter’s Shoes building on Argyle Street—because of the history and because it’s a recognizable space in the Uptown area. They will be refurbishing and keeping the Carter’s Shoes sign, Sharie added.
Classically-trained pasta chef Dave Thielmann, who also works at Bravocados in Tofino, will be designing the menu for the new space. Previews of some of the new dishes can be found on the Brie & Barrel Facebook page.
“We had originally been looking to open a second Bravocados,” explained Colin. “We just felt that this was the right fit for now. There’s definitely a demand for it. This spot just didn’t feel right for [Bravocados]. Our goal is to open another one here, eventually.”
“There’s so much momentum going on in the Uptown right now,” added Sharie. “We wanted to add to what was happening up here. We really want to see this area revitalized.”
Another new arrival to the Uptown area is Kari Chase, the owner of grocery store and bike shop Healthy Habits, which recently received the Health and Wellness Award at the annual Community Excellence Awards. Her business has been located in a rented building on Redford Street, but Chase wanted to purchase a permanent location for Healthy Habits. She chose the former Pine Cafe and Restaurant on Third Avenue.
“We’ve been wanting to be a part of revitalizing the Uptown for a while,” Chase said. “This was just good timing.”
While the building is undergoing extensive renovations, Healthy Habits has opened a “pop-up shop” in a space owned by the Flooring Depot on Third Avenue. The new location will be double the space of Healthy Habits’ Redford Street location—from 2,200 square feet to 4,400. Chase says the entire store space will be utilized.
Along with the help from the Flooring Depot, Chase said Steampunk Cafe’s Kevin Wright has offered major support throughout her move.
“He has helped me the entire way,” she said. “I couldn’t have done this without him.”
Wright, the former president of the Uptown Merchants Association, is also the creator of the Sprout business program. Wright has touted his program for years as a new approach to filling empty retail spaces, especially in the Uptown area. Port Alberni, he argues, is a resource-based community that has sunk into a significant downturn. Much of the crime in the Uptown area comes from unemployment, and Port Alberni should be building the community around small business.
Chase agrees that bringing more people and businesses into the Uptown area can only be a good thing.
“I’m hoping when people see more shops moving in, it will draw more attention,” said Chase. “I’m hoping we can create a lot more events up here, and I’m hoping we can create a good space up here. When I was a kid, these streets used to be closed down all the time for events.”
Phillips has been in the Uptown area for a long time. Although Forever New is only three years old, Phillips previously owned a hair salon in the area.
“I love the Uptown,” she said. “We’re a real community here and you don’t get that anywhere else.”
Along with running her two businesses, Phillips is also a member of the Uptown Merchants Association, the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and she runs the Uptown Port Alberni Facebook page.
“When I took over, it had about 200 likes,” said Phillips. “I thought, this is not good.”
A few months later, the Facebook page has more then 1,250 ‘likes’ and Phillips uses it to share what’s going on in the Uptown area with the rest of the community.
“People are seeing what everybody has, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “I really want to see Port Alberni grow. I want to see every business filled all the way down to the Harbour Quay.”
Phillips, along with other Uptown merchants, is hoping that a summer street market will bring more people to the Uptown area.
Last year, the market was held on Margaret Street off the Johnston Road corridor, but the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce is hoping this new location on Third Avenue will block most of the wind that caused problems for vendors last year.