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Although business lagged near end of its 43 years, mall jump-started Moncton's retail dominance

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Times & Transcript

Location: A1

Topics: Miscellaneous

Before Champlain Place, the power centres, and the popular strip malls in all corners of the city, there was Main Street's Highfield Square: at one time, the shopping and entertainment mecca of Moncton.

Although it's hard for younger Monctonians to believe now, Highfield Square, the area's first enclosed shopping mall, was the picture of modernity and vibrancy for the city's downtown core.

When it opened in the early part of 1969, its anchors included the retail giant Eaton's, Sobeys, a cinema and a restaurant, among a couple dozen other local and national retailers.

Greg Turner, a long-time resident whose family owned a retail business downtown during the time, said the opening of the mall was a proud moment in the city's history and one that launched its retail prowess.

'As a downtown merchant, we were excited about it,' he said.

'It was very open and bright, so it was quite an attraction for all of southeastern New Brunswick.

It brought in many stores that were already there serving the community on Main.' Eaton's was one of the first retailers to sign on for Highfield Square. It was an obvious choice.

In 1919, Eaton's built a six-storey mail-order office in Moncton. It was the headquarters for the Atlantic region as the city was a railway hub. It opened in February 1920, on the former Record Foundry and Machine Co. Ltd. property, and 8,000 visitors toured the new premises. It was primarily a mail-order catalogue operation, with very limited over-the-counter merchandise. Walk-in customers could place an order and, within one to two hours, pick up their items. Seven years later, a complete retail wing opened, the first in the Maritimes. The Halifax store opened a year later.

Highfield Square opened during Eaton's 100th anniversary celebrations, and a few years after Canada celebrated its Centennial.

It was a promising time and Moncton's viability as a major player in Atlantic Canada was growing.

City council and local developers had a hunch, too. Talks about Moncton's first transportation, commercial and entertainment centre started in 1960.

Ralph Hayden, a Moncton resident since the late 1950s, remembers the time well.

'It was a big deal that brought us into a new era of retail and Moncton's exploded since,' he said.

'In the early years, it brought a lot of people in, visitors, new residents. They saw Moncton as a great spot, and Highfield put us in the national market. It was a huge asset to the city.' The first developer connected to the fruition of the project was E.D. Bryson (Hardman-Bryson), of Halifax. In working with the Canadian National Railway, which owned and leased the site for over 100 years, a master plan to transform the site on Main Street into a modern centre was created.

And just like major projects in today's municipalities, the actual construction and opening of the mall took a few years longer than originally planned. But this meant new jobs for Moncton, as the construction and engineering fir ms hired to do portions of the work were mostly local.

In October 1967, Eaton's announced that construction of the Highfield Square store was awarded to Parson's Construction Co. Ltd. of Moncton. The steel contract went to a New Glasgow company, Maritime Steel and Foundry Co. At the same time, the name Highfield Square was revealed. The main contract for constructing the entire building went to J.L.E. Price Ltd.

In the early years, local retailers, like Rae Fraser Florist, Nortell's, Kinney Shoes and Econo Colour joined national mainstays Reitman's, Suzy Sheir, Shoppers Drug Mart and Met in Highfield Square.

Popular restaurants and bars called the complex home over the years, too.

Turner remembers when the nightclub called The Strand Cabaret opened in the 1970s and was the first hot spot for nightly live music.

'It featured top-name bands from the States and Canada almost every night of the week,' he said. 'They really were the first to bring bands from out of town, with eight and nine-piece orchestras, jazz bands, you name it. Even with the mall closed, the restaurant in the front, and nightclub in the back would draw people downtown all week and weekend.' At that point, Turner says, there were many federal employees in the area, and the Brunswick Hotel, now the Crowne Plaza, was right across the street.

'It was something else. It made the downtown very vibrant.' During Highfield Square's 10th anniversary celebrations, it was announced that the movie theatre would be replaced by a 10,000 square foot fast food centre, which would house about eight restaurants, and allow for about 30 new jobs. It was the second important phase for the mall, as many modern-day facilities had started to add food courts.

Competition became apparent in the 1980s.

Champlain Place was built in 1974 on a parcel of marsh land, smack dab between Moncton and Dieppe. It went through its first expansion in 1986.

Highfield Square kept up its dominance as the centre of town with 1984's Phase 3 - the final project, a mixture of office and retail space, including a link to surrounding properties. Estimates put it at up to $10 million for a proposed office tower (Heritage Court) and additional retail space in Highfield Square. In 1991, Highfield Square launched the 'It's the way we shop' slogan.

Around the same time, Champlain Place was positioning itself to overtake Highfield Square. With the neighbouring property becoming home to the Crystal Palace amusement complex in 1990, and more national retailers opening stores in the mall, shoppers began to turn away from Main Street.

One of the biggest blows came as the country discovered the Eaton's empire was going bankrupt in 1997. A few years later, in 1999, the Moncton location in Highfield Square closed, along with the chain's 85 other stores.

'It was a really sad day when we lost Eaton's,' Hayden said. 'It was a setback and there was a loss of employment.' Turner says it was clear that downtown shopping was deteriorating in the 1990s, with all the different malls popping up in Moncton.

But the large retail space that was Eaton's was quickly nabbed by another Canadian giant, The Bay. It also hired most of the laid-off Eaton's workers.

One spring day in April 2000, hundreds of shoppers jammed at the windows of the new Bay store in the early morning, waiting to get inside. Although The Bay, owned by the Hudson's Bay Co., has been a busy spot since, the rest of the mall wasn't faring so well.

The Northwest Centre, Trinity Power Centre, the Plaza Power Centre, among others, and of course, Champlain Place, were attracting Moncton clientele, as well as shoppers from the other Maritime provinces.

The Mapletown Power Centre, now under construction, will bring even more big-box American and Canadian retailers to Moncton.

In 2011, Highfield Square couldn't retain tenants and was half-empty. It was still anchored by The Bay, and Moncton Household Liquidators, a furniture store that opened up in the old Sobeys location after the grocery store moved to its new location on Vaughan Harvey Boulevard. Other stores included Betty Rubin, Reitman's, The Passage, Pay a Dollar, Samuel & Co., Bentley, Boutik Electrik, Rae Fraser Florist, a dental clinic and R&B Watch and Jewellery. The once-busy food court was occupied by only three shops: Tim Hortons, A&W and Treats.

Highfield Square slowly began to fail, and in January of this year, it was announced that the 43-yearold mall would close its doors for good in the fall. A week before that, The Bay announced that its lease with Highfield Square wasn't renewed and that it would be closing its doors the same day.

It's the end of an era, but a new one has been in the works at City Hall for close to a decade now, and the Highfield Square property, they hope, will once again become the epicentre of town.

A proposed metro events centre will be more than just an arena to supersede the Moncton Coliseum. City council has asked architects to come up with concepts for the facility that would see the proposed sports/ entertainment space as just one element of a larger redevelopment in the downtown, including things like retail space, condominiums, offices, indoor-outdoor market space, tennis courts, transit hubs and rooftop gardens.

In March, Moncton city council unanimously voted to enter into an option agreement with Warren Gate Investment Inc. for the acquisition of the Highfield Square property. All the land east of the old Sobeys store, located at the southwestern edge of the mall, is included in the agreement. The city paid $25,000 to hold its option to buy the piece of land in question for $6 million. The option has a decision deadline of Dec.

31 and a closing deadline of March 2, 2013. Making the actual purchase relies on securing cost-sharing for the proposed $100-million centre from the provincial and federal governments and the private sector.

Turner, like many residents, feels like the metro centre is the best opportunity to redevelop Highfield Square, and once again use the property at Main and Highfield Streets to bring life into the downtown.

'The renewal project of the downtown is already on track. There's lots of progress and the events centre is bound to happen, I think.' Hayden agrees, saying that a metro centre will do great things for the city, as Highfield Square did for so many years.