One of the Vancouver’s most vibrant and colourful shopping areas, the Punjabi Market in south Vancouver, is struggling as businesses and customers move to Surrey.
High rents, a shortage of parking and shoppers switching their allegiance to outlets in Surrey have combined to put a strain on the ethnic businesses in the area.
The Punjabi Market, also known as Little India, developed as a a cultural and commercial focal point for Vancouver’s Indo-Canadian community.
It extends for three blocks on Main Street. Eight out of the 70 retail spaces were vacant in October. Landlords had put ‘For Rent’ and ‘For Lease’ signs in the shop windows.
In his 21 years at the market, Madan Dhingra, the co-owner of the Mona Cloth House, remembers better times.
“Rents are high here. Business is not good and profits are down. No new person wants to open a store here,” he said, pointing out at an empty shopping space near his store.
That outlet had moved to Surrey in February and the space has remained vacant ever since.
“In the past, owning a store at Punjabi Market used to be a matter of pride. But, it is no more so,” he said.
According to Dhingra, businesses peaked before 2000. A steady decline started in 2004/05 and things have only got worse.
The Surrey factor
The market largely caters for South Asians, mainly Indians, who settled around the 49th Avenue. It was home to Vancouver’s Indo-Canadian community when it was established in the 1970s.
Merchants said business started falling some four years ago when traders started moving to Surrey to reach the growing number of Indo-Canadian consumers there.
Rents for the shopping spaces have also affected the businesses.
Sarabjit Chandan, a vegetable store owner, said, “Rents were high when the businesses were at peak. Businesses fell and profits went down but the rents remained same.”
A store owner pays 2,000 to 4,000 dollars a month in rent, depending on size and location.
“The landlords cannot bring the rents down as they have to pay high property tax of up to 26,000 dollars a year,” said Inderjit S. Bunwait, the owner of the Amrit Fashion clothing store.
Lack of diversity
Shop owners and clients are predominantly Indian immigrants but some argue the market needs to reinvent itself.
Daljit Singh Sidhu, former president of the Punjabi Market Association, said the businesses should try to reach out beyond the Indo-Canadian community.
“We have to change the way we are doing the business. We have to mix up and cater to different communities,” he said.
Most of the shops are clothing boutiques and other fabric shops. There are 14 boutiques, offering everything from high-end Indian designer suits to sarees to bargain clothes.
There are eight restaurants offering Indian foods and sweets and coffee shops, five hairdressers and beauty parlours and four grocery stores.
The market has at least seven jewelery stores, three music shops and six general stores offering a variety of goods. There are four pharmacies including an acupuncture facility, a laundry shop and three paan (areca nut wrapped in betel leaf and chewed as palate cleanser) stores.
What are missing are backing facilities and adequate parking.
Navjit Singh, who has been working in the area for the last 20 years, said creating more parking spaces, the opening banks and diversification of goods and services could revive the market.
City’s help sought
The official voice of the merchants, the Punjabi Market Association, is looking to the city to lend a hand.
It argues that the City of Vancouver could cut property taxes and provide grants for the merchants to revamp their stores.
Association president, and owner of Himalaya restaurant, Kewal Pabla said landlords were recognising the changing business climate.
He said some landlords have actually reduced the rents, adding that the empty shopping spaces are being gradually rented out.
Local businesses were upbeat when there were talks about building a landmark gate depicting Indian art, culture and architecture at 50th Avenue on Main Street.
Merchants had hoped the proposed India Gate plan would bring more tourists and money to the market. But the project is mired in bureaucratic limbo.
The gate was meant to be a tribute to the pioneers of the Indo-Canadian community who first settled in Vancouver more than a century ago.
In 2008, the Vancouver City Council had passed a proposal to build the gate.
The Punjabi Market Association pledged 700,000 dollars for the gate while the provincial government promised 500,000 dollars.
The federal government had reportedly pledged to contribute two million dollars. But there has been no progress on the pledge so far.
Pabla said the association has been pursuing the issue and “the ball is in the court of the federal government.”
Back at the market, some merchants doubt that the gate will ever be built.
Naresh Shukla, the owner of the Mother India shop, described the talks about India Gate as a political stunt.
He said local leaders may raise the issue again before next election in order to attract voters from the Indian community.