Clearspring Centre charts post-COVID course

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The halls of Clearspring Centre were packed with shoppers and vendors last Friday afternoon, with some eager to get their holiday shopping done early and some merely taking in the spectacle of a large-scale event.

The annual Christmas Craft Show returned to the mall last weekend after a two-year pandemic hiatus, though some returning vendors felt they hadn’t skipped a beat.

Sarah Janssens, a local maker whose Dairymaid Lettering Co. sells paper goods, stickers, and wearable merchandise, only participated in one Christmas market before the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on in-person shopping and markets.

Gerald Jeske, general manager of Clearspring Centre, hopes the return of larger markets and events will lead to a resurgence of attendance at Steinbach’s largest shopping centre. (NICOLE BUFFIE | THE CARILLON)

“In-person is always ideal, right? Getting to know people, getting to meet people, hear their stories,” she said. “It’s just much more fulfilling.”

As Clearspring Centre marks more than 40 years in business, a revival of the shopping mall seems to be on the horizon despite changes in consumer shopping habits, pandemic-related closures, and competition from Winnipeg.

“We hope this is a new day,” said Gerald Jeske, Clearspring’s general manager.

At one point, the days seemed glum. With strict capacity limits plaguing retail stores during the pandemic and long-time tenant Ardene shuttering in September 2021, fewer shoppers graced the halls of the shopping centre, which could host no craft sales or markets to draw in the masses.

“We improvised,” Jeske said, though hosting small-scale markets didn’t stick the way he’d hoped.

“Counting people in the mall was not fun. And making sure, you know, we followed all the rules and restrictions. It’s hard to focus on sales, and at the same time, follow all these other rules.”

However, brighter days seem to be ahead.

Jeske, who credits Sunday shopping hours with bumping retailers’ sales over the last two years, points to other factors which he sees as positives for the mall and community at large.

What was once a 12 percent vacancy rate at the 33-store compound has shrunk to just two percent in the last few months. When a fire devastated a Main Street strip mall in July, some victims of the blaze took up residency at Clearspring Centre, including H&R Block, Janzen’s Paint & Decorating, and Steinbach Flooring.

Restaurants are back, too.

“There was a lot of people that said, ‘You’ll never bring a restaurant back to the mall,’ and now we’re going to have two,” Jeske said.

The last restaurant to reside inside the mall was Uncle Jake’s, a staple eatery in the mall for decades before it closed permanently in June 2020. In its place, franchises barBURRITO Fresh Mexican Grill and Prairie Donair will serve hungry shoppers.

Jeske also speculates shoppers still have a desire to buy their goods in person.

“People still want to have the touch and feel, they still want to try (clothes) on. They still want to, you know, have that experience of shopping for it as well.”

In May, construction crews broke ground on an 80-acre mixed-use development behind the mall, which thrilled Jeske. New homes next door means new residents who can shop in their own backyard, he said.

“If you want to live somewhere, you want to shop there too.”

As the Christmas season, a ‘bread and butter’ time for retailers, approaches, Jeske has a few tricks up his sleeve to keep shoppers visitingClearspring Centre.

In addition to the Christmas Craft Show, which boasted 100 tables and 70 vendors over three days, the mall has replaced decades-old kids’ rides for new ones. Santa and Mrs. Claus will also be stationed in the halls every day from Nov. 26 until Christmas Eve.

It’s for these reasons Jeske remains hopeful the mall is staying put for the foreseeable future.

“Focusing on the fact that, you know, let’s support local, let’s support local jobs, let’s support all the local restaurants that are here. That will be our success for the long term,” he said.

“It was hard for a lot of the retailers and hard for the restaurants. But I just hope we flipped the page a bit.”

For Janssens, the craft sale vendor, the revival of mall markets is just another opportunity to connect with other vendors and the public again.

“It just brings back the reason why you do it,” she said. “It makes it less about the business and more about encouraging others and about sharing the gospel.”

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