Journey To The Super Centre
The Walmart bus: transit service filler or local biz killer?
by Paul Dechene
The plan was this: I’d go down to Southland Mall and take the new shuttle service out to the Grasslands shopping area and use that adventure to frame this story. It would be a news-as-travelogue piece.
But you know what? I can’t get all Jack Kerouac about a short-bus trip to Walmart.
I did make it out there — Feb. 12, two days after the new super centre opened its doors — and I’ll say this: when the city decides to sneak some shuttle service out to a big box store, it’s quick and convenient.
Didn’t have to wait long for one to show up. And the ride was a quick 10 minutes from Southland Mall to that big beige and blue temple of low, low prices.
From my perhaps snarky and condescending tone you’re probably getting the sense I’m not a fan of exurban big box shopping. It’s true; I’m not. I loathe it and despise all that it stands for.
But that’s me. The new bus is well-used and it’s servicing a very popular shopping centre.
Like, ridiculously popular. In fact, judging by the crowds, this new Walmart is the Rolling Stones concert of Regina shopping experiences.
So whom can we thank for the express bus? None other than Pat Fiacco. The new route is a mayoral initiative. Direct your praise and criticism accordingly.
But first, give the man a chance to explain.
Fiacco says it’s a temporary fix. He says transit schedules will be changing in May, with routes 7 and 9 expanding to incorporate Harbour Landing and Grasslands.
“All I did was simply ask the administration, ‘Would you please provide us with what it would take for a temporary service until the permanent service is in place?’” says Fiacco. “And they came back with the idea that, ‘What we can do is provide a direct shuttle service from Southland since that’s where most customers would have stopped anyway.
“It’s an additional $70,000 for the next three months,” says Fiacco. “But I think it’s $70,000 that is well spent. Now, that doesn’t include the return from the fees, from the transit fares. That’s just the initial expense.”
Fiacco says he has been assured by administration that the shuttle won’t compromise transit service elsewhere.
And no, he says — the idea was not prompted by any call from Wal-Mart.
“I had a number of calls from our customers though,” he says. “From citizens that needed the service. And of course those that are employees as well.
“We have an obligation as a municipality that provides transit regardless of who the business is. In this particular case, as you know, the uptake on it, with only one day’s notice — we only started the public service announcements on the Tuesday — yesterday [Feb 10] was an incredible day.
“In my opinion, our goal is to increase ridership,” says Fiacco. “Well, the way to increase ridership is to provide the service to those that need it.”
Director of Transit David Onodera agrees that providing service like this is important.
“When developments like this go up, past history has proven transit needs to be there because, first of all, the people who work at Walmart tend to be a segment of the population where most of the jobs are part time; they’re not paid a huge wage. Often you get people who don’t have cars,” says Onodera.
“We have been talking to both Harvard Developments and Wal-Mart over the last seven or eight months, and the information we were getting is there were 40 to 50 employees who expressed concern that they would not be able to get to work unless there was some form of service.”
But while shoppers and Walmart employees may have been clamouring for a shuttle, others in the city find it a worrisome sign.
In the prairie dog office (for example), jaws dropped at the news that a new suburban Walmart was getting its own express bus service. With all this under-serviced city’s transit needs, this is the urgent priority?
And what about the idea that Walmarts are a local business killer? A mega-shopping siren that lures consumer spending away from small, local retail?
“As the Regina Downtown guy and being a general citizen of the city, the optics of the whole thing are weird,” says Michael Huber, executive director of the Regina Downtown Business Improvement District. “At the same time as they’re raising fees, they’re spending all this money on a shuttle to help the greatest killer of small business around.”
I asked the mayor: is council supporting a local-business killer?
“No, I don’t agree with that comment,” says Fiacco. This isn’t about supporting Wal-Mart. This is about supporting customers, citizens that rely on transportation for a living, or to put clothes on their kids’ backs or food on the table. That’s my priority.”
Huber, however, says that he’s had conversations over the last two years with downtown business owners who are very concerned about the effect Walmart and Grasslands will have on their viability.
“[Grasslands is] a lifestyle centre design. They’re trying to replicate the downtown. It’s totally a concern,” says Huber. “You get the assurances from the powers that be that, ‘Oh, no big deal, it won’t compete at all with downtown.’
“That’s just garbage.”
As evidence, he points to Grasslands’ free parking lagoons. When complete, the ratio of parking to retail space will be the highest in the city. The downtown can’t compete with that.
“Now we’ve also got the shuttle out there, which has better service than to most places in the city,” says Huber.
“The easiest place to get to in Regina is Walmart? That to me is a tough one. I’m all about transit but I’m not about subsidizing, to the tune of $70,000, a company that obviously doesn’t need much help.”
SMALL BIZ OWNERS SPEAK
We called local business owners to ask how they felt about the new Walmart shuttle service. Most comments were along the lines of A.) it was weird how the decision was handled and B.), “Great, I hope this means the City will be setting up a shuttle for our business/ block/ neighbourhood!” There were also owners who had no problem with it. And there were business people who had an EXTREME problem with the Walmart bus, but didn’t want to court trouble by voicing their opinions publicly. Here are comments from three brave souls who weren’t shy about sharing their thoughts. /Paul Dechene
One of the sad things we see with Walmart is they pop up and many small businesses go down. And now, there’s going to be a vacant space in that section of the south end that’s going to suffer even more again. I know a lot of people who work at other grocers who say within that first week that [Walmart] opened up, those stores were vacant. I understand excitement and people want to see what’s new. But it’s Walmart, we’ve seen it. —Tim Martin, Atlantis Coffee Company
I find it odd that one company would get preferential treatment when there are so many employers in the city. But it’s not surprising. I guess I’ve kind of been leery of the whole idea of a new shopping district in that area that people are flocking to, [and] a little bit worried. And now we’ve got shuttle buses going out to the edge of the city, what about downtown revitalization? What about all the money we’ve spent on that? —Leslie Charlton, Groovy Mama
I’ve been trying not to think about it. Maybe if I don’t think about it, it’ll go away. Just kind of seems like an unfair advantage for a big corporation that doesn’t need an advantage. —Dana Tillusz, Comic Readers