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AREA COVID-19 BUSINESS IMPACT: Eyeing the future with ice cream, movies in Innisfail

Innisfail's small businesses battered by pandemic still have hope
Derek Austin WEB
Derek Austin, owner of Innisfail's Century Theatre, still plans to hold a 20th anniversary celebration of his opening night for all his past and present young employees when the COVID-19 crisis is over. Johnnie Bachusky/MVP Staff

INNISFAIL – Derek Austin’s planned party at the historic Century Theatre may be shut down but there is still hope.

This month the long-time Innisfail entrepreneur was set to host a 20th anniversary celebration for his theatre’s re-opening but that show is already over. For now the Century Theatre is just another victim of the COVID-19 outbreak. Like most of the other businesses on Main Street its doors are closed.

“I’ve got to wait. I would have liked to have something happen sometime in April but obviously that isn’t going to happen,” said Austin, who purchased and first restored the abandoned 92-year-old theatre in 2000. “But maybe in the fall. Maybe bring in some type of movie and do something kind of special. I am trying to think of something I could do that would be unique, maybe the first show I had here.”

Mostly though he is thinking about the dozens of kids over the years who relied on the Century Theatre for part-time jobs, and the experience and fun they had playing the movies, making the popcorn and catching up on Main Street news and community gossip.

He was going to honour them by buying an ad in the local newspaper and publishing their names. It would be their chance to outshine the marquee’s movie stars.

“What are they going to do? They are missing it now,” said Austin, who had to lay off his three young part-time workers. “As it is kids have less and less to do now at home.”

There is a similar story happening east of Austin’s theatre at the Innisfail Dairy Queen, owned by Mark Kemball, a former town councillor and non-stop booster for small business in the community.

Many of his employees are also young high school kids who have the opportunity to earn a part-time pay cheque at one of the coolest places in town.

However, unlike Austin he has not had to shut his doors because of the increasingly strict provincial measures to mitigate risk to the pandemic. He has not yet had to lay off any of his 35 full and part-time staff. But he has decided to cut back his services. The main dining area is closed and Kemball is restricting service to drive-thru, takeout and delivery.

Most importantly his staff have stepped up cleanliness by sanitizing all touch points immediately and everything else in the restaurant every 15 to 30 minutes. As they must have personal interaction with all customers, the restaurant has one dedicated employee to service all customers.

“We are trying to be as extremely careful as we can because our goal here is to be able to continue to serve the community but we need to make sure our staff and customers are safe,” he said.

However, like every other business in town his bottom line is hurting. Kemball believes he can weather the storm now and over the summer but it will be another story altogether if the crisis continues into the fall. By that time the cumulative adverse impact of the crisis could catch up.

“I think we could weather the storm through the summer even with limited amount of business but come fall I think we are going to be in real dire straights for our business in particular,” said Kemball.

In the meantime, he’s hoping to take advantage of some of the senior levels of governments’ emergency assistance programs. While his concedes the programs appear to be good, Kemball, like all other business owners, are anxiously awaiting delivery times.

“There are going to be so many people requiring these programs that I worry about delivery as well. I just don’t know if they can be done in a timely manner,” said Kemball. “I guess we will just have to wait and see but when there is going to be a half a million people looking for employment, and that is just the preliminary number I have heard, I just don’t know if they can deliver the programs fast enough.”

Back at the theatre Austin is doing more renovations to his grand old movie house, once considered the most up-to-date and complete theatre in Western Canada.

Like Kemball, he absolutely believes it’s critical to have a robust successful business core in small town Alberta communities. But today everything is eerily quiet on Main Street, much too quiet.

Both men, however, believe there is still hope for Innisfail’s downtown, hope for business, even if they ride back to normality is littered with obstacles.

“The saving grace I believe is everybody in every community is in the same boat and I just hope that once this is over we can ramp back up again and people will see opportunities to either get back into business or reopen and the economy will bounce back,” said Kemball. “It is very stressful but I just know the way the people of this province are and this community.

“We are going to get through it and weather the storm together,” he added. “We all have to remain as positive as we can and do everything we can to minimize the risk to everybody.”

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Johnnie Bachusky

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