Westmount’s Victoria Village in trouble as one store after another closes

Click to play video: 'Popular Westmount area becoming ghost town'
Popular Westmount area becoming ghost town
WATCH: A growing number of storefront closures in Westmount has both locals and politicians concerned. Many stores around the Sherbrooke Street and Victoria Avenue area have closed in recent years. As Global's Amanda Jelowicki explains, rising rental costs are forcing businesses out – Mar 22, 2019

Krystyna Konefal has run Eatz Encore on Sherbrooke Street in Westmount for the last 13 years. It is one of the few businesses still standing on her stretch of the street.

“It’s sad because every time you pass by you see one store closing, a few months after you see another store,” Konefal said. “It’s hard.”

READ MORE: Merchants fume as Montreal’s Rachel Street sees major construction 5 of the past 6 years

Two years ago, real estate giant Cromwell bought her building. Konefal is concerned her rent will soar when she re-negotiates her lease in two years and she is seriously worried about her own future.

“I am very scared. I love what I do. I would love to continue but it depends what kind of price,” she said.

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Over the last few years, Cromwell has bought up much of Westmount’s Victoria Village. Merchants complain rents quickly go up, and become unaffordable.

READ MORE: Popular Westmount eatery Cavallaro closes its doors

All around the village, stores have closed.

The storefront that used to house Pier 1 has sat empty for almost three years. The location of the popular former bakery Gasgogne hasn’t been filled since it closed in 2017. Popular local restaurant Melrose pizza on Sherbrooke Street near Victoria closed a few months ago.

Ben and Tournesol just moved from their longtime location on Sherbrooke Street to a smaller, cheaper space. North Face is closing after many years in the area and the chocolate and coffee shop that opened on Sherbrooke St. at the corner of Claremont closed only a few months after it opened. Cromwell owns all of those buildings.

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WATCH: Montreal business owners affected by construction to be compensated

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Montreal offers compensation to business owners

“Everyone is concerned, somewhat depressed, somewhat surprised,” said Steve Sigler. “A little everything, a little sad.”

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Sigler runs Bead It Gemstones on Sherbrooke Street.

The building is owned by Cromwell and Sigler admits rents are high, but he says that is only part of the problem. He says Westmount business taxes are also too high and too many merchants in the community don’t bother with online shopping, which he says keeps his business alive.

“It would not be possible for us to exist without our website…it’s a vital part of our business,” Sigler said.

READ MORE: Quebec bricks-and-mortar retailers try to stay relevant in online shopping era

Global News spoke to a Cromwell manager by phone. He said Cromwell is in the business to make money and doesn’t want all these vacancies. He added, though, that rents are what they are because Westmount taxes are so high.

“I don’t think it’s the taxes, I think it’s more the rents,” said Westmount City Councillor Cynthia Lulham.

Lulham says the vast number of vacancies is a big concern.

But she says the city can’t legally stop Cromwell from buying buildings.

“Of course it’s a concern but there is nothing we can do. The best we can do is to try to work with them and try to get them to fill their vacancies quickly.”

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Lulham said the city has hired a consultant to come up with a plan to re-brand both the Victoria Village and the Greene Avenue area as more of a destination for shoppers. Merchants Associations in both areas recently got non-profit status, so the city started funding and working with them this year to try and revitalize the area. Lulham says they may bring in “totems” or some aerial fixture in the areas to mark that it’s a special shopping area.

READ MORE: Montreal to compensate businesses affected by construction

John Campbell, who runs the Victoria Village Merchants Association, is working with the city to promote the area, and try and prevent a domino effect.

“I think the average store owner he looks around, he’s concerned. You don’t want to be around empty stores,” he said.

As one store after another closes in the popular area, everyone is wondering who is next.

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