Dec. 1, 2013 is a day Kim Reynhoudt had been looking forward to all year.
He imagined he’d be hosting a Craigflower Bridge reopening sale at his Canadian Tire store this weekend – just in time for Christmas – to welcome back customers who avoided the area during the project’s eight months of construction.
But the expected opening date changed from Dec. 1 to late May 2014, and now Reynhoudt and nearby business owners are bracing for what they say could be a dismal Christmas shopping season.
“Being that this bridge is closed right by my doorsteps, it’s had a huge impact on my sales. It’s been extremely disastrous for business,” he said. “We certainly planned for the closure for the eight months. The town talked to me and we agreed to shut the whole bridge down and get it done quick and get it back ready before Christmas season. Normally December is my busiest month, but I’m expecting it to be a much quieter month.”
He expects he’ll have lost more than $1 million in sales by the time the bridge is complete.
Lori Lelonde, owner of Your Pet Pals in nearby Nelson Square, says her sales are down 30 per cent compared to last year.
“It’s brutal. We are just hanging on by our fingernails,” she said.
After her business felt the impact of the Admirals Bridge (June to September 2009) and Island Highway (July 2010 to June 2011) projects in recent years, Lelonde says she anticipated a downturn with the Craigflower Bridge replacement.
Lelonde took a second job with the Department of National Defence and stopped taking a salary from her pet store, in order to keep all three of her employees on staff.
In July 2012, Saanich and View Royal, which share responsibility of the bridge, even delayed starting construction nearly a year to avoid this very issue. Jim Hemstock, Saanich’s manager of capital projects, said last year: The loss of access between Saanich and View Royal during the Christmas shopping season “would be devastating” to businesses.
View Royal Mayor Graham Hill says he feels bad that area businesses will suffer as a result of construction delays.
“Am I happy? Absolutely, no. I have great empathy for the businesses that are there. There is always concern (about) businesses having additional hardships,” he said. “But the reality is, that concern should not get in the way of a structure this robust and being engineered well.”
The construction deadline was delayed twice this summer: a North American steel shortage made it difficult to acquire materials, and then it was discovered the bridge, as planned, was seismically unsafe.
Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard says while Dec. 1 was the touted “expected” completion date, the construction timeframe always had the potential to run much longer, and well past Christmas.
“There was a (financial) bonus if it was done early. I think we’re all guilty of getting enthusiastic about the bonus target and we talked about (Dec. 1) more than we did about the range,” he said. “We optimistically looked at the earliest possible date and talked about it with enthusiasm. We weren’t realistic.”
Both Lelonde and Reynhoudt say they were under the impression Dec. 1 was firm, otherwise there would be penalties.
“All (the municipalities) say is: ‘The bridge will open when it opens. These things happen.’ We’re stuck now,” Reynhoudt said. “I accept the fact in this world we have to upgrade our infrastructure. But it is very upsetting and I certainly feel that this has been poorly executed, poorly thought out and poorly communicated.”
He says he won’t need to hire extra help at Canadian Tire this Christmas season – he typically increases his staff by 15 per cent. Lelonde won’t be adding staff either.
“I don’t know how long you can sustain this. It’s more a matter of how long before I crack,” Reynhoudt said. “I’m starting to have a hard look at all costs in the store because we have to try and get these things in line with the dramatic decrease in sales. I don’t want to lay anybody off.”
Dan Spinner, CEO of the WestShore Chamber of Commerce, says he’s concerned for the retailers, but understands things happen unexpectedly during major infrastructure projects.
“Whether it’s the downtown bridge or this bridge, you don’t know what you will find till you find it. They’ve discovered a number of things they weren’t planning on. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just very unfortunate,” he said.
Despite the issues impacting businesses in his municipality, Hill says the Craigflower Bridge project is still “a good news story.”
“I think overall the best choices are being made,” he said. “As much as I’m very concerned for the well-being of our businesses, it is an essential requirement that the engineering be done right.”
Access to the area isn’t completely gone. Tillicum Bridge remains open to allow vehicles to cross the Gorge, and Craigflower Road is clear of construction.
“You can still get to where you need to go, it’s just more inconvenient,” Spinner said. “We hope loyalty overcomes a little bit of driving.”
Lelonde says all she can do is put her head down and work hard at keeping her business afloat, hoping there isn’t another delay and crews can get the bridge finished earlier than the currently scheduled late May opening.
“It’s so hard when you put your heart and soul into something you love so much, and something like this happens and your hands are tied,” Lelonde said. “There’s nothing you can do. Every day you plug away and do what you can to keep going.
“It’s tough, but you know what? I’m one of those that’s not going to get knocked down. I’ll get through it, I hope.”