Walking down St-Denis St., you can’t help but notice all the empty storefronts. A city of Montreal study recently found that nearly 1,000 out of 7,000 storefronts in Montreal are vacant. St-Denis has been hit especially hard with a vacancy rate of 26 per cent.
That comes as no surprise to some business owners on the street.
“The rent is really expensive and the city tax is super expensive too, it’s like half of the rent most of the time so it’s really hard for people to establish themselves,” says Élie Proulx-Chantal, manager at Café Le Club Espresso Bar.
Despite the high vacancy rate, it’s not all bad news. There are some businesses who are doing well on St-Denis. Floh Shoppe, a co-op that hosts various thrift store vendors, opened last September.
“So far, business has been great,” says Alex Mondry, Floh Shoppe’s owner. “It helps a lot that our store is a multi-vendor boutique, so costs are shared amongst participating resellers and everyone does their part in creating online content and promoting the shop to their followers.”
While these vendors are faring well, they do acknowledge that not all businesses on the street are in the same boat. “We’ve been pretty happy where we are but when we meet other managers or other owners, they’re not very happy with the situation on St-Denis,” says Proulx-Chantal.
The city’s study has several suggestions to fill those empty storefronts. They include making rents more affordable and penalizing inactive owners by taxing empty premises.
Jimmy Zoubris, special business advisor to the mayor, says one of the biggest problems is rising property taxes. “There are people who are speculating in certain areas that become very very hot so the evaluation goes up which means your tax bill goes up which means you, as a small business, have to pay more,” he explains.
Zoubris says the city is already making changes including giving some business owners a tax break on buildings worth up to $500,000. They’re also widening sidewalks and adding urban furniture as well as green spaces to attract more shoppers.
One thing that small businesses also complain about is too many unnecessary regulations. These include restricting opening hours, something that resulted in huge fines being issued to several record stores in 2019.
In 2017, Montreal was granted metropolis status under Bill 121, which gives the city the power to set the opening hours for bars and shops. They can also financially assist businesses, compensate merchants affected by past and present construction and intervene in the maintenance of deteriorated buildings.
Zoubris also cited construction, specifically the previous administration’s renovation of St-Denis St., where they simply redid the street without remodeling the sidewalks, as an issue. He says that adding a bike lane as a possible change, noting it would increase the amount of people but also reduce parking.
“I think recent construction pushed away a ton of small businesses over the last three years and it’s up to the city to come up with new incentives for businesses to return,” says Mondry. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”