A longtime businessman in New Westminster has been given the green light to open a cannabis store in the uptown – despite some concerns that the neighbouring pub has yet to reopen after closing in March.
Reel Reef will be located at 320 Sixth St., a building that’s also home to River’s Reach pub and liquor store. The city considered a rezoning application for the site after three other applicants who had submitted applications to open stores in the uptown were unable to open for various reasons.
“I put a lot of time and funds into this,” applicant George Petropavalis told council at Monday night’s public hearing. “I followed the city’s rules and regulations.”
Mike Watson, a senior planner with the city, said theexisting liquor store space would be split into two units, with the cannabis store added to the existing businesses on the site.
“The proposed location would replace the previously authorized location in the uptown area, which was unable to proceed,” he said. “Selection of this location was consistent with the initial application intake process endorsed by council, as staff contacted the remaining applicants in the uptown area in order to prioritize based on the cannabis rezoning application evaluation checklist.”
Some speakers at Monday’s public hearing suggested the city should embark on a new process for cannabis stores in the uptown area.
“With any new venture, there is uncertainty. Clarity around expectations and requirements often only come with time,” said Janet Andrews, secretary-treasurer of the New Westminster and District Labour Council. “We are concerned that in advancing to next applicant on the original list, which is a couple of years old, this process has excluded new applicants who may come from either the public or the private sector to engage in this retail opportunity.”
Kusam Doal, the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union vice president for retail stores and warehouses, agreed.
“If it was a very recent application, that is one thing,” she said. “I understand there will be a lot of work that would have to be put into this again, but I really think it’s worth it.”
Andrews also expressed concern that River’s Reach pub has yet to reopen under regulations set out by the provincial health officer.
“We are all for safety of workers and for our community, but the economic recovery from the pandemic will take good jobs and people working and paying their taxes, and communities engaging together in a safe manner,” she said. “This should be a factor in who receives the benefit of a bylaw amendment from the city.”
While other businesses in the services sector have reopened after working to introduce protocols that promote health and safety for workers and customers, Andrews said River’s Reach has not done so.
“It is concerning to us to see the applicant for this bylaw amendment opening another business in the community but not being engaged in finding safe ways to reemploy existing workers at the River’s Reach pub,” she said. “There are entries on the pub’s Facebook page where customers are asking about reopening, to which the response is, ‘when the time is right.’ We feel this is a vague answer that neither reassures their intent to reopen or to reemploy the unionized workforce at that location.”
Thechief of staff of River’s Reach Pubsaid the applicant has been part of the New Westminster business community for 50 years, and has employed thousands of people and given back to the community in numerous ways during that time.
“I think it would be completely unfair that Mr.Petropavalis would even have to start this process all over again given the amount of money and time he has put into it,” she said. “We followed the city’s application.”
River’s Reach officials said they consider the safety of staff and community members to be of the utmost importance and will only reopen when it can be done safely.
“A lot of people that come there would like to enjoy themselves and move around. It’s very hard for us right now to keep that safety with the type of business that we are in,” Petropavalis told council. “We will be ready to open up when we feel the time is right and it’s safe – safe not only for us, but safe for the community and the workers. We are in a pandemic. A lot of people don’t realize that this pandemic is getting serious as we get into the fall.”
The cannabis store application “has nothing to do with the pub” and should be considered on its own merits, Petropavalis said.
“The pub is its own identity, the liquor store is its own identity, and this is a new business,” he said.
A woman who owns a unit in a nearby strata building on Blackford Street asked council to reject the rezoning application until neighbours receive more information about potential impacts on traffic and parking.
Following the public hearing, council approved the zoning amendment bylaw, which allows a cannabis retail business to operate within the existing building at 320 Sixth St. Councillors Jaimie McEvoy and Chuck Puchmayr opposed the rezoning.
Puchmayr said he’d prefer to open up the process to see if there are other proponents that would like to submit an application to open a shop in the uptown – including a government-run store that would provide good, stable jobs and pensions. He said he has spoken to members of the union that organized employees at River’s Reach pub, and they don’t feel their rights as employees are being respected.
“I also have to look at an owner that has a unionized, organized facility and is not opening up, whereas other pubs in the community are,” he said. “I am worried, by not opening up, that they will basically run the certification out, where those people will have to go and find other jobs and will no longer have the union endorsement. I am very troubled about that.”
Last spring, hospitality workers at River’s Reach pub voted to join UFCW Canada Local 1518.
Coun. Patrick Johnstone said the application is completing the process initiated by the city several years ago regarding retail cannabis stores, which included having a store in each of the city’s retail areas.
“It is important to me that this is not impacting the pub operation,” he added. “The pub is still going to be there and operating. It’s not replacing it.”
McEvoy, however, expressed concern about the process, saying this application isn’t the one the city originally supported in the uptown. He said there seems to be a lack of clarity at this time about how much space Reel Reef would take up in the existing building on Sixth Street.