Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Fort Erie Race Track 1897-2012?


On a wet, windy, Fort Dreary day, my mother and I paid one final visit to Fort Erie Race Track, a place we'd been to hundreds of times in the 1970s and 80s. My parents enjoyed the odd wager back then, and they would tow me along to whichever track happened to be open that day. From Orangeville to Greenwood, Flamboro to Fort Erie, I got to see a lot of mud, sweat and horse plops and got to see a slice of life that most people don't.

From sweat boxes in jockey's dressing rooms, to getting my picture taken with Sandy Hawley, to becoming friends with other kids who got dragged to the track by their parents. The last day of the school year wasn't sad, but the last day of the fall meet at Greenwood was. It'd be another four months before I'd get to see that bunch again.

Last days are indeed sad when you know that it just might be a real last day. Today, Tuesday, October 30 was supposed to be the last day of live racing for Fort Erie's 115th year. The track had been on rocky ground as various other forms of gambling had diverted punters' dollars to lotteries, bingo halls and casinos. The track's fate might have been sealed long ago were a slot facility not installed in the moribund Grandstand section of the track in 1999. Revenues were strong for the first few years, then gradually declined as casinos were opened on the U.S. side of the Niagara River, and tougher passport restrictions made cross-border travel more of a hassle for Americans who previously had no need for such a document.

What was deemed the final nail in the track's coffin was hammered in by soon-to-be-former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty who announced that the Slots at Racetracks program was going to be phased out and the Province's gambling industry was going to be "modernized". In other words, they're going to try to locate casinos and slot facilities where the money is (i.e. Toronto and other larger cities). The loss of 210 jobs at the slot facility at the end of April will now be augmented by hundreds more in the Track part of the facility, which is scheduled to close its Off Track Betting facility on December 31, 2012. Hope remains for a return to the border oval next year with new owners and perhaps new management, but for now, Fort Erie is dark.

Today's card of racing was supposed to be its last. Hurricane Sandy caused a change in plans, with track officials not willing to risk injuries to riders or "equine athletes" as their press release put it. Yesterday's card finished with Krz Executive winning by four lengths over Silver Hoofbeats. In case you missed it, here it is:

Photos taken on Sunday, October 28, 2012 at Fort Erie Race Track, Fort Erie, Ontario.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Rotting Decaying Corpse of Zellers Gerrard Square

At the corner of Pape and Gerrard in the Riverdale/South Riverdale/The Pocket/Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto is the local mall, Gerrard Square. Built in the early 1970s, the mall boasted the only Simpsons-Sears store in the former City of Toronto, mainly due to contracts drawn up by part-owner Simpsons which mandated no-compete zones which prevented "Sears" from opening in areas already served by "Simpsons" (The actual zone was 25 miles, but I guess Riverdale was far enough into the hinterland that Simpsons didn't care). Other tenants of the time included Miracle Food Mart, Steak N' Burger Restaurant and the budget-offshoot of Eaton's, Horizon. It is in the space of this former Horizon store that this story takes place. 

After folding the Horizon brand, Eaton's opened stores under its own nameplate in Gerrard Square and across-town in Dufferin Mall. The stores were small, but carried a general selection of the dry goods that they perceived families needed without having to trudge all the way downtown from far-flung burgs like Riverdale. The store lasted until the late 80s when, during one of several downsizings, Eaton's closed down their smaller, less-profitable stores. Coupled with the Zellers aquisition of the Oshawa Group's Towers chain, a nearby Towers store in Riverdale Plaza was closed, and Zellers opened in Gerrard Square. (Finding actual dates for these events is challenging)

Fast-forward to 2011. The mall had been redeveloped in the early 2000's which saw the Sears store, which had been demoted to a rather horrible outlet store, closed, the creature comforts upgraded, a Home Depot, Winners and Business Depot opened. The American chain Lord And Trailer Taylor decided that Zellers had become an asset only in what they could get for their leaseholds, so they divested themselves of Walter Zeller's nameplate and reaped nearly two BILLLLLION DOLLARS from Target Corporation for the lease on 220 stores, including Gerrard Square. The store was deemed too small for Target's needs, so they resold the lease to Walmart Canada. It was announced that Zellers would start liquidating the store starting September 24, 2012. I documented the demise at various points during the liquidation period. 

As inventories dwindled, Zellers moved their stock toward the north side of the store so that renovations could start. Once the southern part of the store was cleared of toys, clothing, electronics, hardware and seasonal items, the walls were stripped and painted Walmart blue, the floors were resurfaced and new shelving was installed. 

  Unlike most doomed Zellers, the pharmacy stayed open until moving across the floor to the Walmart (photo taken September 17, 2012)
 An unusual sight: Walmart signs directing clients to their newly-opened pharmacy, operating within the still-open Zellers store
 Although sparse in design, the "Pharmacist at Walmart" is open for business (photos taken October 12, 2012)
 The Great Divide. Liquidation on the left, renovation on the right.
 Behind the Curtain. New Shelving waiting for the boat from China filled with cheap crap new merchandise to arrive.
 The former direct exit to Gerrard Street, which became a fire exit under Zellers' watch.

 Six more days to go.... (photos taken October 20, 2012)

 Note the "Lowest Price..." sign. There used to be a second one, which has now been whitewashed by Walmart.

 Checking In....
 Checking Out...

 Last light 
(photos taken October 25, 2012)
 (now if they could only get rid of these creepy 'squares')
 Last employees share a tearful goodbye.

Store closed. Doors locked. Walmart blue already painted across the doorway. (Photos taken October 26, 2012)

Later today, Walmart opens where Zellers closed. Photos taken at 1000 Gerrard Street East in Toronto, Ontario between September 17 and October 26, 2012.

UPDATE: Barely a day after the last photo was taken, Walmart moved in to the southern half of the now-former Zellers space. Initial offerings were fairly sparse, with pet food, some small appliances, Halloween candy, health and beauty aids and shoes being the first items on offer. Interestingly, they didn't resurface the store, leaving numerous red stripes on the floor. Also, it appears that HBC still has control of the store's staff lunch room as they've had to throw together a fenced-in area with foldable tables right in the middle of the store for staff to unwind (and customers to gawk at). Here are some shots from soft launch opening day.

Bottom set of photos taken October 27, 2012 at 1000 Gerrard Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

UPDATE: 12/18/2012 - It appears that they've finally put the external Walmart sign on the Gerrard Street side of the mall. Mall management didn't even repaint the area, as the dirt from the old Zellers sign is still visible beneath. Now if they could just get rid of the square people....

UPDATE: 1/25/2013 - Well, after being open for almost 3 months, Walmart holds its Grand Opening today. Here's a sneak peak from last night:

 You are here

 Electronics Department

 Your Depend-able Pharmacist

 Former pharmacy area, with emergency exits in the background

 Not ready (for you) to go

Indecent Enclosure

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Belinda Carlisle in Niagara Falls

Another week, another concert featuring Belinda Carlisle. (or as the opening act referred to her, Belinda Car-lizle) This time, it was truly a solo show. No band, nobody to banter with, just Belinda and her tambourine. She took to the stage to accept a gift on behalf of the Buffalo Bills' Billieve organization as a thank you for flying up to Western New York to perform at and outside the Hard Rock Cafe as part of their Pinktober Breast Cancer Awareness event.

Then it was Belinda-oke for the next 45 minutes, but within that span you realized just what a hit-making machine this woman was. The first half hour or so was dedicated to her solo hits (Mad About You, I Get Weak, doctors-office-fave Circle In The Sand, etc.), followed by a blitz of Go-Go's singles and finishing off with Heaven Is A Place On Earth. 45 minutes, no muss, no fuss, just a great show by a pro who didn't need props or musicians, just her voice. Ironically, her voice was at its best when she was singing Jane Wiedlin's lines from Islands of Seals Our Lips Are Sealed.

Photos taken on Mayor Michael O'Laughlin Drive, Niagara Falls, NY on October 19, 2012.