The last couple of years haven’t been the easiest for restaurants, bar and retail store owners in uptown Waterloo. Since 2014, the city’s core has gone through two major construction projects.
ION Light Rail Transit work involved closing King St. and sidewalks from the Laurel Trail in front of Waterloo Public Square to Union Street at the city’s border with Kitchener. As with any construction project, there were delays – including the discovery of a centuries-old corduroy road.
At the same time, the streetscape improvement and sewer replacement projects caused major disruptions to the north end of King St. from Waterloo Public Square through to Central St. near Ethel’s Lounge.
Just when you thought it was over, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and businesses were forced to close their doors to customers.
Over the summer, businesses reopened when the provincial restrictions were lifted. The City of Waterloo and the uptown Waterloo Business Improvement Association (the BIA) worked with owners to create spaces that met provincial COVID-19 standards. Portions of Willis Way and Princess were closed to vehicle traffic for extended patio space. The summer’s great weather also helped draw weary crowds out from their non-stop Zoom meetings.
But all good things can’t last. As we approached fall, the spectre of colder weather wasn’t the only concern. Both the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University announced that their terms would be held virtually rather than in-class – meaning fewer students blowing off steam at the bars in uptown Waterloo. The numbers aren’t readily available, but one source said that some of the larger student residential buildings are at 80 per cent capacity and on-campus housing is at half capacity.
“In speaking with university reps, there are a number of students coming back and we’re encouraging them to visit uptown businesses,” Tracy Van Kalsbeek, executive director of the Uptown Waterloo Business Improvement Area, said. The BIA has released a new version of the student-focused map to help welcome new students to Waterloo and to reconnect with returning students.
While the south end of uptown is more retail and business-focused, the north end traditionally caters to the university crowd. “It’s all related to entertainment,” Van Kalsbeek said, “Kentucky [Bourbon & BBQ] is a restaurant by day and a nightclub by night. The Princess Cinema brings students too.”
Closures since COVID-19 have included some of the more well-known student haunts. Chainsaw, the always good-time karaoke bar closed in April. Last month, Patent Social announced it was closing – even as the doors were opening at sister venue Revive in the former Harmony Lunch space. Coffee and whiskey bar DLVB also closed its doors for the last time in September.
It’s not all bad news. “Nine businesses have opened since March,” Van Kalsbeek said. Most recently, Score Pizza, a franchise out of Kingston opened their doors on King Street next to the Works Burger restaurant.
Depending on public health rules, the BIA is working on events to help bring traffic— both students and locals, to the city’s core. “We’re looking to do some activations around the holidays where people can come explore on their own time, in a social bubble,” Van Kalsbeek said.
The challenges faced by restaurants and bars are also hurting retail. While restaurants and bars were able to expand their patios, retail owners were forced to find other ways to continue operating. “Retail has been super hard hit too. They’ve only been able to have a certain number of people in. They’ve had to go online to offer sales to customers.”
Van Kalsbeek has seen many instances of locals supporting the small businesses in uptown – a sign of the strong sense of community across Waterloo Region. “Things like people supporting local, ordering takeout, making appointments at local salons,” said Van Kalsbeek.
As a second wave of COVID-19 looms, now is a great time to follow public health guidelines and shop at your locally owned businesses.
Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Waterloo Region, Ontario. He's behind the TL;WR newsletter–Waterloo Region's weekly events newsletter. He's worked with some of Canada's most well known tech companies in roles including customer success, development, product management, PR, social media and marketing. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, Grand Magazine and more.