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Northern Vision banks on waterfront

Northern Vision Development has snapped up another prominent Whitehorse property.Last Friday, the real estate company acquired the Yukon Centre…

Northern Vision Development has snapped up another prominent Whitehorse property.

Last Friday, the real estate company acquired the Yukon Centre Mall on Second Avenue for $6.4-million, betting the shopping centre’s proximity to planned developments along the Yukon River waterfront will lead to traffic and profits.

“It’s well located because it’s across from the Motorways property, which we believe is going to be the site for a lot of new investment in the Whitehorse downtown area,” Northern Vision president Piers McDonald said in an interview Wednesday.

In recent years, a lot of retail activity has moved from locations on or near Main Street to an orbit surrounding Wal-Mart — a development McDonald helped bring to Whitehorse during his days as Yukon’s premier.

The move from street-front retail to big-box business will make another leap forward when Canadian Tire moves from its current downtown location to a store beside Wal-Mart.

Even Mark’s Work Wearhouse — currently a tenant in the mall that Northern Vision just purchased — is moving beside Wal-Mart.

But despite the big-box boom, McDonald and Northern Vision anticipate a revitalized Whitehorse waterfront will lubricate an even bigger economic engine.

Fittingly, the Yukon Centre Mall is the third patch in a quilt of waterfront properties the company has purchased in recent years.

The other two are small sections of the Motorways lands and Waterfront Place, which is on the riverbank close to Wal-Mart.

The properties are currently undeveloped or, in the case of the mall, slowly becoming part of the retail rustbelt.

But that won’t be the case for long, said McDonald.

“I don’t think it takes a lot of entrepreneurial savvy to believe that the waterfront lands behind Boston Pizza have great potential,” he said.

“So, obviously, we want to invest in properties that we believe are going someplace in the long term. We’re not just buying anything; we’re buying properties that have an obvious advantage.”

Plans for the Whitehorse waterfront include a Kwanlin Dun First Nation cultural centre, and a proposed arts and heritage complex.

Waterfront development has been talked about for decades. But shovels have now broken ground on First Avenue, which has been upgraded for use during the Canada Winter Games and for future developments.

Northern Vision also has a plan for its Waterfront Place property that calls for a mix of residential and commercial developments.

The vision includes condominiums and a luxury hotel and spa, said McDonald.

“We’re still exploring how we might accomplish that,” he said of the plan. “We’re still in the early stages.”

Waterfront Place already started changing with the extension of the waterfront trolley line to the new Spook Creek station on the property.

Whitehorse’s waterfront will continue to assume a far different look in coming years, confirmed city planner Zoe Morrison.

“We want an area that’s vibrant, with different activities and that feel of connectedness, from Waterfront Place all the way down to Robert Service campground, with different things in different parts,” she said.

Northern Vision is banking on those changes creating even more economic growth.

But owning about 20 Whitehorse properties, several of which are awaiting development, has created a cash-flow problem for the company.

Last week’s purchase of the Yukon Centre Mall helps alleviate that, said McDonald.

“You need to bring cash into the business, so consequently, you buy properties such as the mall,” he said.

It currently has five tenants, including the Super Valu grocery store, the Yukon liquor store and a Subway restaurant franchise owned by McDonald’s wife Ofelia Andrade.

Northern Vision is planning upgrades for the mall in the next year, but is focusing on the Motorways properties directly across the street, said McDonald.

The company is also “kicking tires” on a number of other properties, including the High Country Inn — but no deal is in the immediate future, he said.

Northern Vision already owns the Gold Rush Inn on Main Street.

About 40 per cent of the company’s investors are Yukoners, while the rest are from Alberta or northern British Columbia, said McDonald.

Several investors are current or former Yukon politicians, including Trevor Harding, a cabinet minister in McDonald’s NDP government, and current Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.