MONCTON – Centre Weldon in downtown Moncton has opened featuring local shops like Dodo Handmade Leather Goods, Madame Thai natural body products and Crystal Lotus Creations.
Roger Atlee, who owns Punch and the building itself, says he set the rents to just cover the operating costs. “We were able to take the property and just break down the cost of [operating it] without any profits,” he said.
The result is much cheaper rents for a commercial building in downtown Moncton. There’s room for eight businesses in the building, though Atlee is seeking out unique, New Brunswick businesses that need help and can prove its viability.
Originally from Ukraine, Nataliia Haidash and Andrey Gaidash, who own Dodo Handmade Leather Goods, had sold most of their products online through Etsy, at craft shows, various events and markets, other retailers or from their showroom at home. At their new store, they carry some home decor products from Impertinent.ca, a local business owned by immigrants from France.
Haidash said Centre Weldon is a good, affordable start since they’ve been looking for a showroom for a while. Plus, it’s located near the Avenir Centre and a bus stops right in front of it.
“We’ve been looking for commercial properties and they were like a couple of thousand [dollars] per month and that wasn’t an option for us,” he said. “[Roger] had this building empty and he wanted to turn it into some business project, but to make something meaningful of it, not just any business. So that’s how this conversation started.”
The rental price is similarly a concern for Madame Thai owner Nichapha DeMaeyer, who is originally from Thailand. DeMaeyer makes natural body care products, including soaps, lipstick, mosquito repellent and hair oils at her home. She had sold her products online, at craft shows, salons and other retailers but began looking for a storefront a year ago at the suggestion of a customer but had a hard time finding a suitable spot.
“I feel like if we have a retail space, it makes the customer really feel trust you more. You have an address … and customer can come and see you have products in the showroom,” she said. “And you can touch [the product]. And I can explain with you exactly how it works.”
An Incubator For Small Businesses
The retail hub also serves as an incubator for small businesses, run by Oliva, a consultancy firm and social enterprise with which Atlee is working. Dodo, Madame Thai and Crystal Lotus are the first three businesses in this test run. The incubator will officially be launched in the fall, in time for the Small Business Month, Atlee said.
The first target of the incubator were immigrant entrepreneurs because that’s where Atlee had seen many struggles. It now also aims to help other small businesses.
Atlee, who moved from the United Arab Emirates a few years ago, had gone through 3+ Corp.’s Business Immigrant Mentorship Program with the owners of Dodo and Madame Thai, as well as Oliva team member Camille Derelle-Aubut. He said many of the immigrant entrepreneurs he knows left the province because their businesses don’t succeed.
“It’s very easy to stand up on stage and say, ‘do this, do that’ but it’s another reality when you’re trying to overcome day to day challenges, running a family, being new to Canada. That throws in a lot of challenges under you.”
DeMaeyer, whose husband is also an immigrant from Belgium, lives this challenge first hand.
“My challenge is everything – my language, my culture, the weather, no connection and my products were very new in here,” said the mother of two.
It took some time, but once people start buying her products and recommending them to their family and friends, she began having returning buyers.
“You need to take time and sometimes you need to really work so hard. It’s not only you need to have a good product, you need to have connections, you need to go out to meet people, to let people know you do this business. It’s not enough to do in social media or something like that,” she said.
Now that she has loyal customers, and after learning about building a business through the 3+ program, she said she’s happy to see people’s support.
“I’m very happy. We feel the customer support us. I’m so much glad everybody comes and says, ‘hey, Nicha, congratulations and we so much happy to see your big step,’ ” she said.
Through this incubator, Oliva is offering some pro-bono consultation services to the businesses and helping them set-up a long-term plan to move them out of the Weldon Centre and onto bigger things. Oliva is founded by organizational development professional Myriane Ouellette and Janice Goguen, who has years of export-import experience through her work at ACOA, and includes Derelle-Aubut with her tourism background. The company works not only with small businesses, but also non-profit organizations, larger businesses and the public sector.
Atlee is also offering his branding expertise to the businesses, while Jonathan Keeley, the owner of Visia, will consult on marketing.
The Spirit of Collaboration
The team at Oliva, Atlee, Keeley and the owners of each of the retail businesses had one thing in common: they wanted to collaborate more.
“I think it is important as together we can achieve more than we can do on our own. And it is not only about sharing the expenses to rent the property for the shops but also we can learn from each other’s experience, support each other and cross-promote our businesses,” says Haidash.
“Each of us brings his or her invaluable experience and by sharing it among us we learn something new all the time. And the more members we get involved the stronger we all become, so I am really looking forward to finding some new partners for the Centre Weldon.”
Crystal Lotus owner Crystal Simpson, who sells custom-made jewellery, knit-items and art, among other things, says she initially wanted a shop because it was getting harder for her to bring her products from market-to-market and from event-to-event. And the idea of the retail hub was appealing to her.
“From my point of view, it’s nice because it’s a collaborative effort. It’s community-oriented. It’s kind of like a co-op the way that this is set up because we’re looking after each other and trying to help each other as much as we can, and I think that’s just absolutely marvellous.”
If the concept works, Atlee has dreams of having a bigger space for it.
“Is this the ideal space for retail? No. But we can’t really dream for the best from day one, right? So we start with whatever we have,” he said.
The shops are open Monday to Saturday, 10 AM – 7 PM.