Thinking of a typical downtown area, most imagine the red lights and traffic jams, tall skyscrapers and people rushing from place to place. For Calgarians this image rings true but for those living just fifteen minutes south of the city, ‘downtown’ takes on an entirely new meaning. But what happens to Okotoks’ small downtown when the winter blues set in?
Downtown Okotoks, better known as Olde Towne Okotoks, exists as one street lined with dozens of unique places to shop and restaurants to grab a bite to eat. It does not have any commercialized restaurants like Starbucks or Tim Hortons, but has small mom and pop coffee shops that draw you in with enticing promises of the world’s best latte.
The bitter smell of freshly ground coffee fills the street, cut by the sugary sweetness of fresh scones coming out of a local restaurant oven. The soft sounds of classical music are often heard as a small brightly painted piano sits waiting for passerby’s to play a tune on its ivory keys.
The shops themselves are entirely unique, and can satisfy any frivolous desire from clothing to home décor and everything in between. There are no major shopping conglomerates bombarding you with cheaply made products, but attractive storefronts displaying enticing deals, and original handmade pieces.
The hustle and bustle doesn’t hold the same magnitude of a large metropolitan area, but the tranquility and simplicity envelops the Town, which makes it feel like a small get away.
Walking down the street it is easy to identify that this quaint area is different from a typical downtown core. Some of these businesses even reside in old buildings dating back before the Towns official beginning on June 1, 1904.
A shop called ‘Rumple Quilt Skins’ is in a large worn out red brick building with large windows exposing the one-of-a-kind quilts inside. A barely legible painting advertisement for the old General Store is proudly shown on the side of the building, the once vibrant blue background now more of a faded grey with half of the paint chipped off due to years of wear and tear.
One particularly intriguing building is the Heartland Café, which according to its website was originally a Baptist church built in 1902. The outside still looks like a church with pointed arches framing the stain glass windows, and inside you can still see the elevated platform where the Pastor would conduct mass.
Some places, like the British Chippy, even set up shop in old houses to provide an unprecedented Olde Towne adventure. Owner Simone Hodkinson also owns a location in Calgary, and says being in downtown Okotoks has provided customers an experience they can’t find anywhere else.
“The ambience is different. You are in an old house so there is some heritage and character. You are not in a typical Canadian strip mall so there is more charm, more history and definitely more ambiance having the restaurant in Okotoks.”
The downtown provides not only customers with an improved experience, but business owners as well.
“I mean in Calgary we are just a small fish in the big sea of Calgary, whereas in Okotoks we play a much more active role in the community,” says Hodgkinson.
“We sponsor local teams, we donate constantly to silent auctions and raffles and all the schools and the teams , it’s definitely more of a community feel.”
In the summer, the downtown is constantly filled with people walking down the street visiting the shops and stopping for a coffee or a little lunch on the way. Patios are buzzing as people talk, laugh and clink their drinks together in the warm sunshine.
High school student Raechelle Patricio says that downtown Okotoks is one of her favourite places to visit in the summer.
“It’s very vibrant and I love everything about it. I love how kind of old timey it looks, and everything has something going on down there, especially in the summer.”
The charm and chill vibes aren’t the only thing that drive people to visit downtown Okotoks, the Town often puts on events to attract people to visit.
These fun filled events are certainly a driving factor in urging people to come and visit downtown Okotoks. Hodgkinson notes these events help attract the traffic that keeps her business doing well.
“We rely on outside traffic — we rely on the Calgarians coming into Okotoks and on a lot of through traffic coming in the summer months,” says Patricio.
However, as the events slow down and warm summer days shorten into frosted winter ones, traffic gradually tapers down as well.
“We first opened in the summer and it was booming it was ridiculous it was crazy,” Hodgkinson recalls, “and then the winter came and we were like what have we done wrong, what’s happened? You lose 50% of your trade because there are no Calgarians coming through anymore.”
With the cold setting in, Patricio says that the downtown could offer a few more events to encourage people to brave the cold.
“They could add a lot more lights, make everything a lot more extravagant. And make new celebrations in the winter.”
Although the downtown struggles to keep people coming in the winter, Hodgkinson says that once the warm weather is back, so is business.
“It’s the weather, people just not travelling when our winter comes. And of course we have no events happening December. January, February, March and then it all kicks in again and it’s all great.”
Editor: Megan Atkins-Baker | firstname.lastname@example.org