I was going to blow the lid right off this story! After six months in this city by the sea, I had a shot at a real break. No more kid reporter stuff, no fluffy profiles—I was going to take on Fortis.
All of the businesses in the building at159-163 Water St., between The Travel Bug and the Candy Bouquet, had to leave three weeks ago at the behest of Fortis Properties, and rumour was it had to do with some dodgy building inspection. Given that it was one of the buildings slated for demolition in the now-withdrawn project proposal, that sounded like a pretty unlikely coincidence to me.
Salem Ali, owner of the First Western Boutique, set me straight. “The problem was with the fire suppression system,” he said, “The building is not suited to be occupied right now.”
“Yes, they were totally within their rights to close it,” said Gaylynne Lambert, who owns the Asian Variety. “They’ve got the building on fire watch, it’s in terrible shape.”
So yes, Fortis had good reasons to evict their tenants, but eviction is still a pretty draconian thing for a company to do, especially one that has a hand in so much of this city. What about my big story??
“They gave us formal notice in mid January,” Ali told me, “our lease was coming up, and they just said it wouldn’t be renewed.”
“It was a little nerve-wracking at first,” said Lambert. “But they worked with us and they did what they could. We ended up moving across the street to an open spot they had in the TD building. We’re thrilled with the new location.”
The new Asian Variety store is nice. It’s bright, and spacious, and it has just as much window frontage as the old store. Plus, is has air conditioning.
Fortis worked with Ali to move his store to another opening in the TD building, but it’s about half the size of his former location. The move was a chance to take stock, or in his case, move some stock, narrowing the selection. “We’re focusing on what sells most,” he said. “Blundstones, cowboy boots, and biking gear.” The First Western Boutique is the largest Blundstone provider in Atlantic Canada, and Ali doesn’t see that changing with the move.
He isn’t thrilled that he had to move, but all in all, he’s pretty positive about the experience.
“There is always the question, ‘Are they going to kick us out again?’ “ he said. “But they had good reasons, and they offered us this place. If people want quality footwear, they know where to come.”
Lambert points out that with the addition of her variety store and Ali’s boutique, the whole vibe of the TD building has changed. “It’s not just an office building anymore,” she said. “There’s us and the Café Mocha and the photo studio—it’s turned into a much more dynamic place.”
To hear Ali and Lambert tell it, getting kicked out of their old digs was, if not the best thing that ever happened, at least a positive experience.
Sign in the former Asian Variety location. Photo by Martin Connelly.
But then again, they’re still Fortis tenants. Marie Steffen, director of the School of Dance, is not. If anyone was going to give me the dirty details, she was it.
“Fortis were excellent. They worked with the fire commission to allow us to stay in the building until March 31st and provided us with alternate space for our music school. They kept me informed and were helpful,” she said.
So much for Fortisgate.
So what happens now? The kerfluffle-causing proposal has been withdrawn, but it doesn’t seem like Fortis wants to revamp the sprinkler system, or the rest of the building, just yet.
Gail Tucker, Manager of Corporate communications for Fortis wasn’t going to tip her hand. “There is no immediate change in the short-term with respect to this building; it will remain vacant,” she said. “As to the long-term status, that is something we will be evaluating over time.”