Fort Erie has been dealt many blows this year. Today, we begin a two-part special report on the impact and what lies ahead for the border town.

Happy Land.

The simple, makeshift wooden sign painted yellow and pink is faded and unkept.

The store is in even worse condition. Empty, windows barred, a thick layer of dust lining the abandoned floor.

Happy Land used to be a discount store on Jarvis St. Now it serves as yet another empty storefront on what used to be Fort Erie’s busiest street.

Marge Graham remembers the good ol’ days — a true delightful district.

“Oh golly, we had drug stores down here, Skippy’s Restaurant, furniture stores, clothing stores. It was booming when I started working in 1960,” says the manager of the St. Vincent de Paul charitable thrift store, located next door to the deserted discount store. “Now, it’s just died right up.”

It’s a fitting morning considering her mood. Rain looms in the distance, leaves litter the sidewalk and a cold wind snaps up from the Niagara River completing the “Fort Dreary” feeling residents know all too well.

Graham looks around her store and sees a couple inspecting a well-used refrigerator. She estimates 100 people walk through the doors on a daily basis. The hot-ticket items are clothes. Who knows what people are stealing.

“If they need it that bad and want to take things, they’re the ones who have to go to bed at night and fall asleep,” she says.

Still, she knows times are bad for a lot of residents with the pending closure of the town’s major employer, the Fort Erie Race Track.

Across the street at the Old Bank Bistro, one of the few bright spots in a dwindling downtown, owner Peter Koutroulakis isn’t afraid to express his views of the town.

He’s more than willing to spend the better portion of half an hour ranting about town council inside his refined restaurant, although it’s clear he could go on for days.

“We were on a good roll until 2010,” he says, referring to the last municipal election. “The new property owners were being told this is the new growth area. The Region was saying it was. Now, a couple stores leave the area, they can’t make rent and it’s sad.”

The town’s been dealt blow after blow since that election year.

This year Fort Erie lost its slots facility, which generated about $34 million for the town since opening in 1999. It has lost what used to be thriving businesses such as DMI Industries and Jarvis Street Pharma. The mom and pop stores are closing because of decreased business that can be attributed to people leaving town. There are nearly 1,000 new real-estate listings for single-family homes this year. That’s more than Welland, a city with 20,000 more people.

Connie Engels, the head of co-operative education at Fort Erie Secondary School, says the workforce situation is dire. Young adults are graduating from post-secondary schools and not returning because the job market is so scarce.

“A lot of people feel like they’re banging their heads against the wall,” she says.

When the town banded together during a rally to save its hospital in 2008, 5,000 people crammed hallways and stood shoulder to shoulder at the Leisureplex to get the point across they were against demoting the town’s hospital to an urgent-care centre.

Their effort proved to be futile.

“Where else in our history have you seen that type of turnout, that type of community spirit?” Engels says. “And guess what, it really didn’t help.”

She’s not the only one who admits the drive and ambition has lessened, and yet she recognizes people are still optimistic there’s a light at the end of a tunnel.

“I think things will pick up,” says Bill Bews, who has owned Bill and Todd’s Barber Stylists on Jarvis St. for 50 years.

He says it with a grain of salt.

“Not in my time, but they will.”

Source: St. Catharines Standard