City’s pub scene faces challenging times

NANAIMO – Pub numbers dwindle in B.C.'s landscape of shifting liquor legislation.

When I came to Nanaimo in 1972, the city had a reputation for bathtub racing, a pirate mayor and the most pubs per capita of pretty much any city in Canada, maybe even North America.

There were a lot of pubs, but only about 45,000 people here then too, which contributed for the high pub-per-capita ratio.

The downtown pubs and nightclubs were where people went to party, especially during the Nanaimo Marine Festival, truly in its heyday back then, when you and your buddies could stumble through a pub crawl from the Patricia Hotel on Haliburton Street to the Tally Ho at Terminal and Comox, although you’d seriously have to pace yourself to make it all the way.

Sometime around the mid 1980s the pub scene started simmering down and, aside from upticks now and again, it seems those former ‘glory days’ are gone.

Pubs started focusing on market niches and entertainment became more focused as pubs offered karaoke, line dancing, dinner and breakfast specials. All that specialization to grab target demographics, plus younger generations tuned to new entertainment formats, meant downtown’s pubs weren’t part of one big scene anymore.

In recent months the Harewood Arms and Miller’s have closed. The Balmoral on Haliburton Street shut down years ago. The Jolly Miner has been closed for renovations for close to a year and the Patricia is due to shut down for its second phase of renovations. Jerry Hong has sold the Occidental Hotel and has put the Queen’s Hotel up for sale. The Cambie on Victoria Crescent is still pouring beer. The Globe Hotel has undergone several attempts to reinvent itself and the Foundry looks to be scaling back operations.

Pubs such as the Black Bear, Carlos O’Bryan’s, Jingle Pot, Fibber Magee’s and the Wheatsheaf Inn cater to specific neighbourhood populations and thrive in spite of toughened drinking and driving enforcement and smoking bans, but face new challenges.

Legislation, taking effect April 1, will further blur the distinction between pubs and restaurants with children now allowed in drinking establishments and restaurants allowed to serve booze without food. Grocery stores will carry beer, wine and liquor, once the bread and butter of pub-operated private liquor stores. Government liquor stores will open Sundays and wholesale price restructuring means all retailers, private and government, will pay the same prices at the Liquor Distribution Branch, negating another advantage once held by pub liquor stores.

If at one time it seemed like there couldn’t be enough pubs in downtown Nanaimo, perhaps today there are too many for the market to support when regulatory shifts work in favour of other licenced establishments.

The phenomenon isn’t peculiar to Nanaimo. In the U.K. since 2008, 7,000 pubs have closed or been sold and the future of the pub as a traditional social institution could well be in jeopardy.

And yet, there are local signs of new life being breathed into the business. Club 241, formerly the Jungle Cabaret, is apparently under renovation – nightclubs tend to need to renew themselves every eight or 10 years to stay current in their markets – and Miller’s, under new ownership and with renovations nearly complete, could reopen by the end of this week, augmenting the waterfront pub scene with Carlos O’Bryan’s on Stewart Avenue.