Rhino's Ramblings: The Reality of High St. W

RHINO'S RAMBLINGS -  High Street Post City Week One

After a Winter delay, it looks like work has finally started, in earnest, on repairing the mess which has become High Street West.

The City has taken charge and is working to not only physically repair the road but also the damage the entire project has done to Moose Jaw's reputation, provincially. But most importantly, it must somehow repair the trust between City Hall and the merchants along the street itself.

The relationship the City has with the merchants and businesses on High Street is, at best, tenuous. This despite the City taking charge.

I realize there are some out in the community who will tell you the City has arrived with the cavalry to save the day while there are more than a few High Street business and property owners who told me privately it's more like the City is moving in to mop up now that businesses have endured a months long artillery barrage.

The approximated three weeks to finish the construction, at best, is ironically what businesses were initially told regarding how long the project would take.

I know, for a fact, that tempers have openly flared on High Street, with the Moose Jaw Police Service (MJPS) called in last week to separate a very angry property owner who was lashing out at city employees. Losing everything will do that to a person.

I have done a lot of poking around, speaking to High Street business owners off the record and some of the things they told me, if ever proven true, are, let's face it, appalling.

One of the biggest things to understand is that during last year's construction, many business owners were not static. They didn't simply sit in their businesses and look out the windows wondering when the customers would return. Many business owners stepped outside to ask workers what was going on and when it was all going to be done.

What the business owners heard was the raw and unscripted comments of a project falling apart. Things which infuriated many business owners as they tried to contact the City, which in many instances allegedly did not even bother to return their calls.

What the business owners spoke about wasn't just about wrong valves being ordered, a contractor told to dig in a certain spot only to find nothing or freezing temporary water lines. What they spoke about was a relationship turning more sour by the day.

It all boiled down to the first week of November, when a business owner was told by the contractor they would be trenching in the service connections. For this business owner it was nothing more than shock when he claimed he had told the contractor that that was unacceptable as it would leave the street in worse shape. The business owner claimed that he asked if they could just come back and finish the work in the Spring? The response he received was that the contractor had to finish, as there was a November 30th completion date. The contractor and City seemingly no longer working together.

For this one business owner it was obvious the City and contractor at this time were no longer helping each other out. It all led to the very public and acrimonious divorce, in May, when the City officially ditched G. Ungar Construction.

I am the first to admit I am no lawyer. I have not viewed the contract but in my opinion and common sense tells me after speaking to most of the players in all of this, the nightmare may not be over for the City.

I base it all on comments made and how they can all be tied together.

At the May 14th Executive Committee meeting Councillor Brian Swanson mentioned a point from a confidential report to Council. He asked about erroneous locates.

The question did not get very far as Coun Swanson was informed that if he wanted to ask questions about the report, the recommendation was to go in camera.

That 10 second exchange may seem harmless but it sparked something within my mind.
I distinctly remembered something from the 2018 - 2019 budget discussions; that being that the City didn't know where a lot of things were buried. It's one of the main reasons given during budget discussions for the need to properly map out where things exactly are because in many cases the City doesn't know. It was also used as a reason to hire an additional GIS technician. Decades ago it seems nothing was mapped in properly.

I know it might seem like a far stretch to say the City doesn't know where it's major infrastructure is located and you might snicker at me. But if you follow Council closely, there are two instances where this has come up before.

The first was on South Hill, regarding the old Kentucky Fried Chicken property, when the developer (his lawyer Darin Chow) came to Council looking for cash as a major unknown underground line prevented him from developing as much of the property as he wanted.

The other involved moving another main line on the former Civic Centre property. The developer then received sole source approval to move that line at the City's expense.

So how does this all tie into what happened on High Street West?

During my discussions with business owners, down on High Street, one of them told me about the contractor digging for a line; the City had told him there was supposed to be a line at a certain spot. They dug and found nothing.

In another case, the contractor hooked up the water line for one building but had to double back and install a second waterline to the building. The second waterline was allegedly not in the plans provided by the City.

Other businesses point to Caribou Street West and the work done by G. Ungar Construction there as part of Phase Two of Cast Iron Water Main Replacement as a sign the contractor was not incompetent. The work cut into the businesses bottom line but was, according to most reports, completed properly.

This for a couple of severely suffering businesses is a main reason why the City needs to help them out,!financially, to survive. In their mind, the City has blame in all of this and why should they lose everything because of it?

As I have said, I am no legal expert but it all leaves me asking the question to myself: who really is at fault in the High Street debacle? Who should end up footing the bill?

I am also going to state that the legal wrangling shouldn't be the major emphasis right now. Getting High Street finished and the traffic back should be the number one priority. Then the businesses need to recover.

The problem is that fixing High Street may bring back the traffic but will it bring back the clientele? Have shopping patterns, which took years to develop, changed enough that there won't be a return to normal once High Street is repaired?

As I probed into what happened on High Street I also spoke to people who I know shop down there and where they shop now.

Many told me they have found alternative sources for items. Some locally, others are off to Regina. And while in Regina these former High Street shoppers are buying more than specialty bird and fish food. They tell me they enjoy their monthly shopping excursions to Regina but if the Winter is bad and High Street is fixed they'll be back.

Fixing High Street is only part of the equation for businesses; getting back the clientele may well be a major hurdle for many to overcome.

In Moose Jaw's history, we had something like this happen before when the Fourth Avenue Bridge was under repair. It led to the now defunct South of the Bridge Days (SOB Days). It seemed to work on South Hill, the problem is High Street's businesses are not the same type of businesses as located at the south end of the bridge.

The work progresses on High Street as the traffic now stays away from an active construction zone.

The businesses are open and are still accessible from Fairford or River Streets and the Avenues connecting to High Street. Some businesses are even offering to let people into their stores through the back door and feel free to park in the alley. All have telephones and many have web sites they will do business from.

As I took my now weekly walk down High Street, more than a couple of business owners waved at me as many now know who I am. As I waved back I wondered how many will be there to wave to at the end of August.

That is the reality of High Street West.