The proposed move of the downtown Save-On Foods store, currently in the Parkwood Mall, to Pine Centre is a crushing blow to the downtown core and is a new and severe headache for Prince George city council.
The only major grocery store in the area moving out sometime in the next 12 to 18 months puts many current downtown-area residents in a serious bind. The hundreds of seniors living in Gateway and River Bend are about to lose walking distance access to a supermarket.
There have been extensive studies, particularly in the United States, of urban areas known as food deserts. These are parts of a city where there is little to no easy, walking-distance access to healthy food at fair market prices. These areas are disproportionately populated by vulnerable people dealing with everything from poverty and crime to mental health and addictions. Having to travel much further than more affluent residents to put groceries in the fridge for themselves and their dependents adds strain to an already precarious existence.
The outcome is tragic.
Residents of food deserts end up being forced to spend more on lesser quality food. While residents in more affluent neighbourhoods shop in vast supermarkets with huge produce sections, people living in food deserts are left with picking up groceries at convenience stores, where the fruit and vegetables section are a few apples and bananas. Diets suffer, with health consequences for children and seniors in particular.
The departure of Save-On from Parkwood creates all the conditions for a food desert in downtown Prince George.
Not only will many current downtown area residents be affected, so will existing businesses, many already hanging by a thread, thanks to declining consumer traffic and COVID-19. Realistically, many of the downtown businesses that closed their doors last year due to the pandemic are unlikely to reopen even once everyone is full vaccinated and if they do, there's far less reason to set up shop downtown.
Furthermore, the Save-On move takes away a major incentive for people contemplating moving into downtown because they want/need to stop driving and live closer to important health and social service amenities and supports, most of which are located in or close to the city centre.
The entire career of mayors past and present has been around urban residential development downtown, with people working, living and shopping in the city core. The Park House condominiums across from city hall and the student housing building next to the public library were the linchpins in Mayor Lyn Hall's efforts to realize that goal. Along with three new hotels (two built and open, one more set for construction), a new downtown pool, a refurbished library, a new underground parkade, a new child-care centre, and bringing the community arts council downtown into the old BMO building on Third Avenue, it looked like Prince George's downtown might finally become what Hall and his predecessors dreamed it could be.
The whole point of living downtown in any city large or small is not having to own a vehicle. All of the necessities of life are within walking distance or easily accessed through regular and reliable public transit. Without a supermarket, however, the incentive for individuals who have the choice of whether to live downtown or not all but disappears. If you have to drive to the grocery store or get someone to take you there, you might as well live anywhere else in Prince George except downtown.
From a political and business standpoint, there's little that can be done. City council can't force Save-On Foods to keep its store in Parkwood, particularly if Pine Centre is offering a much better lease.
What the planned move clearly demonstrates is how ambitious downtown development plans by earnest local politicians will always remain fully dependent on the ongoing support of the private sector. If the move by Save-On leads to a stampede of private retail and commercial businesses leaving downtown, the opposite of "if we build it, they will come" will happen, showing that pro-development catch phrase pulled from a Kevin Costner movie about building a baseball diamond in a corn field doesn't always work.
"Let's get Prince George moving again," the recently departed Glen "Moose" Scott often said during his two terms on city council, hearkening back to those days in the late 1960s when he first moved to a vibrant, young northern city bursting with potential.
It's safe to say Save-On leaving downtown for the comforts of the city's only interior shopping mall well away from the downtown core isn't what he had in mind.
- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout