“I wonder if it isn’t some kind of a scam.”
That’s what one skeptical resident, in conversation with The Reminder, had to say as rumours of Walmart’s pending arrival in Flin Flon grew increasingly credible in early 2002.
He wasn’t alone. At the time, many citizens viewed Flin Flon – smallish and remote as it was and still is – as an unlikely destination for the world’s largest retailer.
But come Walmart did. In November 2002, the retail giant opened a spacious new store at the former slag field along
Highway 10A, anchoring what was christened the Flintoba Shopping Centre.
Two other big-box stores followed in Canadian Tire and the now-defunct
Extra Foods. But the Flintoba Shopping Centre – colloquially known as “the mall site” – was never intended to end there.
Elsewhere on the property sat what developers envisioned as the final piece of the mall site puzzle. It’s a piece that, to date, has never been put into place – and perhaps never will be.
The year 2004 marked a time of new beginnings in Flin Flon. HBM&S’s legendary Callinan Mine had just closed after decades of operation and the company’s flagship 777 mine was ramping up into full production.
Retirements at HBM&S (now Hudbay) had some residents predicting population growth as young workers replaced their parents and grandparents at the mining and smelting operation.
On the outskirts of town, Extra Foods opened its doors as the third business at the Flintoba Shopping Centre, a move many saw as a strong show of faith in the community.
After the snow melted that spring, shoppers observed further construction – further faith – at the mall site, this time at the northeastern corner of the lot overlooking Highway 10A opposite Walmart.
Developers intended to construct three buildings on the parcel of land: an A&W restaurant, a
Mark’s Work Wearhouse and a strip mall to house, among others, the Movie Gallery store that was then based on Main Street.
Mark’s Work Wearhouse and Movie Gallery were open about their plans to come to Flin Flon. A&W, however, never went public, leaving it to The Reminder to confirm the restaurant chain’s intentions through construction-industry sources.
By that time, another restaurant chain, Robin’s Donuts, had also announced its desire to open an outlet at the mall site. Robin’s required a qualified franchisee to step forward, however, and it’s not clear one ever did.
As contractors readied the new piece of property for construction, even completing the foundation for Mark’s Work Wearhouse, a late 2004 or early 2005 opening for the three buildings was the scuttlebutt around town.
Then, as abruptly and surprisingly as it had begun, construction ground to a halt.
Kraft Construction was nothing if not ambitious. In 1999, the Winnipeg-based company won a City of
Flin Flon contract to rebuild the Fourth Avenue bridge, subsequently named in honour of cigar-chomping former mayor Jack Freedman.
When a deficiency was uncovered within the finished structure, the city informed Kraft’s owner, Henry Rattai.
A risk-taking entrepreneur in his late 60s, Rattai travelled to Flin Flon to inspect the bridge. After making arrangements for the necessary repair work, he joined Kevin Komarnicki, then the city’s director of works and operations, for lunch.
As Komarnicki later recounted to The Reminder, Rattai spoke of some of Kraft’s developments in Winnipeg.
Komarnicki offered to show Rattai the
Highway 10A slag field, the site of a failed shopping mall development many years earlier. Would Kraft be interested in building a mall there? The answer would not come immediately.
“Six or eight months later, [Rattai] phoned me back and said, ‘We’ve been mulling some things over. Let’s pursue this,’” Komarnicki said in a 2004 interview.
Rattai recalled his reaction to the slag field in a 2002 Reminder interview: “I looked at the site and said, ‘Has nothing happened here yet?’ I had followed the history of that site. It was over 20 years since somebody else had ventured on to that site, but nothing had happened.”
Rattai and Kraft Construction were willing to make something happen, but they needed to convince deep-pocketed businesses that investing in Flin Flon made sense.
The public first learned of Kraft’s plans when a wooden sign suddenly appeared in front of the slag field declaring it the “future home of IGA.” The sign featured an artist’s conception of a big-box grocery store.
Many residents, mindful of how the previous mall attempt had collapsed, remained incredulous even after Kraft, in February 2002, began blasting away rock in preparation for construction.
When the federal, provincial and municipal governments chipped in more than $1 million to bring sewer and water lines to the property, skeptics turned into believers.
Walmart opened in 2002, followed by Canadian Tire in 2003 and Extra Foods in 2004, with more stores on the way. Or so it seemed.
“Mall work stops, reason undisclosed,” read the front-page headline of The Reminder on Aug. 24, 2004. The accompanying article described how the three additional buildings planned for the Flintoba Shopping Centre were suddenly in limbo.
At the time, Kraft Construction expected work would resume in short order. Then, on Sept. 9, 2004, Henry Rattai, Kraft’s owner and the driving force behind the mall site, passed away suddenly. He was 72.
Fall turned into winter without any further site development. Kraft later revealed it was restructuring but still expected work on the three new buildings to continue in the spring of 2005. That never happened.
In July 2005, Mark’s Work Wearhouse took the unusual step of reversing its prior announcement that it would open a store in
Flin Flon – though the chain was still interested in the community should the opportunity arise.
Since that time, there have been sporadic rumours around additional development at the mall site – and at least one serious plan.
In 2008, Winnipeg-based Huntingdon Real Estate Investment Trust purchased the parcel of land in question.
Huntingdon hired a real estate firm to lure businesses to a proposed multi-lease building at the site. The company envisioned a 16,000-sq-ft building to accommodate three to six businesses, but again nothing materialized.
What about IGA, the grocery chain once identified as having its “future home” at the mall site? Talks between Kraft and IGA, while initially promising, failed to produce a deal, a fact illustrated by the opening of IGA rival
Since the failed mall site expansion, only one notable change has occurred at the property: the 2011 closure of Extra Foods. Both the parent company and the workers’ union confirmed the store had been a money-loser.
The Extra Foods closure was immediately followed by rumours of a secret corporate plan to convert the store into a non-unionized No Frills grocery outlet. Like so many other tales that have circulated about the mall site, this proved to be bogus.
Today, weather permitting, youth are sometimes seen skateboarding on the foundation for the Mark’s Work Wearhouse that never was. To its west is a mound of earth marking the once-hoped-for site of A&W; to the east, pilings and rock-embedded rebar for the proposed strip mall.
None of the retailers once interested in joining the Flintoba Shopping Centre are publicly talking about such plans today. The task of determining the current status of the partially developed parcel proved to be a fruitless task for
Is further development at the mall site in the cards? Anything is possible going forward, but given the long and troubled history of expansion efforts, few shoppers seem willing to stretch their budgets to bet on it.