With Yolan Bowen (Property Administrator) and Grace Russo (General Manager) Interview by Paul Nguyen on October 5, 2004 All photographs taken on October 5, 2004 by Paul Nguyen with permission. Complete interview is available for download in windows media audio format Download Yorkgate Mall Interview audio recording here (31 minutes, 4.5MB) Visit www.yorkgatemall.com Questions:
1. When was Yorkgate Mall established?
Grace: Yorkgate Mall was built in 1990 and it was open to the public in 1991.
2. Who does it serve?
Grace: It serves the catchment area. Everyone in the neighborhood and basically the community and the people who have moved away from the community that still have fond memories and come back to the mall.
3. Who built it?
Grace: Great Northern Development.
4. What was the total cost of the building when it was established?
Grace: I’m not sure.
5. What was the mall’s aim when it was first established?
Grace: There was only one mall, which was the Jane-Finch mall, and Jane and Finch is traditionally an area where Canada’s immigrant population first settles so it’s a high density area, and I don’t believe that the one mall was able to serve the community entirely so another mall was built to be able to service everybody.
6. What is the aim now?
Grace: We aim to serve in the retail sector and we also aim to serve in the community sector as well.
Yolan: We do a lot of community programs because we are a community shopping centre. I think a lot of what we do to is to promote a positive image of the people in the community and the things that the community is involved in so we host a lot of events to that effect. It’s been very instrumental in accomplishing what you’re trying to accomplish in giving Jane and Finch a positive outlook. When people think of Jane and Finch, they know that we have the Kiddy’s Caribana. Last year’s 2004 Caribana was perfect. We had no negative press; as a matter of fact we had a lot of positive press. We’re on the TV quite often. We want to highlight Yorkgate Mall as a community shopping centre where the community can come and have a good, safe time.
7. How many stores are in the mall?
Grace: We have over 60 stores.
8. What are some of the mall’s favourite, longer-running stores?
Grace: We can’t really say we have favourites. But some of the older ones are some of the independent ones. We’ve got vendors who have been here 13-14 years right from the inception. We’re got Singer Sewing and B&B Fashions and the No Frills which was first Loeb.
9. How many stores have been added since the mall’s establishment?
Grace: The G.L.A., the gross leasable area of the mall has always been the same. The way the area’s been split up changes from year to year. If we get a megastore, that’ll eat up 3 different stores, so you’ll have 55 stores instead of 60. Then the following year we’ll split up a unit into 5 stores or whatever so that number varies year to year. But we have approximately 60 stores.
10. Approximately, how many people does the mall employ?
Grace: I couldn’t tell you how many employees the mall has. I could tell you with the exception of No Frills, Zellers, IDA and Montreal Bank, that there are probably 2-3 employees per store.
11. Why was the mall chosen to be built in Jane and Finch?
Grace: Just to satisfy need.
12. Jane and Finch has a distinct reputation for being problematic. What sort of challenges did you anticipate? Did you encounter any of those challenges? How did you deal with them?
Grace: I can see that the problems that Jane and Finch has are no different than the problems that are experienced uptown and downtown. We still have kids with nothing to do. We still have people struggling to get by day to day. You have the usual problems that you would have anywhere in the city. We’ve dealt with them through our programming. We do a lot of back to school to safety programs. We have a lot of amusement programs for kids who need things to do. We have a lot of educational programs that we offer on a monthly basis.
Can you name some of those programs?
Yolan: We had the Toronto District School Board and they did a back to school safety program, where anybody in the neighborhood could come and they would show them the proper way to use the schools buses, how to get on how to get off. We have different programs like the Kids Prints. Back in June, we set up some tables where we had Kids Help Phone brochures and information for anybody in the neighborhood that needed to access that information. We do the finger printing with Kids Prints in case something should happen the parents have a package where they can give to the police. The mall is a place where a lot of people come and bring their kids and we want to be able to assure them that we’re looking out for their safety as well. We try to make sure we have a good relationship with 31 Division in case we have events like Caribana, where they’re out there making sure and helping. Their presence is two-fold. They make sure that they build a great relationship with the community and also to make sure that the people participating, mostly kids, in the Kiddy’s Caribana Parade know they can do that in safety while they have a good time as well.
Grace: We even reach out to our community through our tenants. We have some special tenancies. We have the J.F.C.C.O., which is the Jane-Finch Concerned Citizens Organization that does outreach with the community and thereby brings people who need outreach to the mall. We assist the J.F.C.C.O. in anyway we can through programming and helping organize special events. We work with Seneca College to try to get the right programming for this area into the school. We make sure we communicate and talk about what the needs of the community are.
Yolan: We give back to the community as much as we can as well. Seneca College, through the Caribbean Cultural Committee, has a scholarship program that we fund and the high school students can access that funding that is available to them. They just have to apply for it. There are a lot of things that we do to give back to the community and to make sure that it’s a place people want to come.
13. How did you come to be manager?
Grace: You need certain skills to manage a mall. You need leasing skills, you need accounting skills. You need a certain capacity to deal with people. You need a certain capacity to have a vision for marketing. There’s a whole range of qualifications that you need. You also need a certain amount of legal background to deal with lawyers on legal issues and the city for zoning issues. So basically, they search for a certain type of individual and those individuals come forward and they go through the regular interview process and that’s how you get a job like manager of a mall.
14. What are your responsibilities?
Grace: My obligations are fourfold. One is to the owners of the mall to make sure that their asset is well looked after, makes money and is viable. My other obligation is to our tenants. I have obligations to them through our lease agreements to make sure that everything we’ve promised them in that lease, they get. And everything they promise us, we get. So it’s a reciprocal agreement. And my third obligation is to my staff to make sure that they in an environment that’s safe, an environment where they’re learning and constantly being challenged. And my fourth obligation is to the public to make sure they have an area centre they can come to which is fun, clean, offers them whatever they need to find, to purchase, to bring their children, too. So those are sort of my main functions and when I come here I take a look around the mall and make sure everything is running smoothly, make sure the operations are running smoothly, make sure that all the rents are paid and everything is paid and all the bills are paid, and do some legal documentation. It’s really rounded; there are lots to do when you’re managing a centre.
15. Do you live in the Jane and Finch area?
Grace: I lived here for quite a few years. From grade 5 all the way through high school.
16. Why do you choose to live here?
Grace: My parents lived here. I’m Italian and there are pockets of Italians areas here. I had a great time, I had a wonderful time in this area. I used to go to the Jane-Finch mall. I used to attend high school here. It was a great area. It still is.
17. What sort of events is held at the mall?
Grace: We have events every month.
Yolan: We have the York Youth’s kids club that’s growing and growing and it happens every second Tuesday of the month. We send out birthday cards too. We have a databank of kids’ birthdays and they’re invited to come and bring 5 of their friends and they get a loot bag and they get to do crafts. We have different shows. For example, for Halloween we’re going to have a monster band. We’re going to have trick-or-treating. We’re going to have costume contests for the kids in the community. You know, of course, we have Santa’s arrival. In the summertime, community groups might come to us and want us to host basketball tournaments.
Grace: We have Law Week. We celebrate Black History Month. We have our sidewalk sales, we have 2 or 3 a year or more. We always have something going on every month.
18. Tell me how this year’s Caribana events went i.e. who participated, the turnout, problems and successes.
Yolan: Well this year’s Caribana was over the top. It was absolutely wonderful. We got a bird’s eye view from the roof and we could see the whole thing. It was amazing. What was more amazing this year is we had 8 more bands than we usually do, so we had about 14 of them all together. What amazed me even more was everything went off without a glitch. For us, that’s a big deal because we want people to see that Jane and Finch is a place to come and have fun, and it’s safe. I think with that being accomplished, if that was the only thing that happened, we had a great Caribana.
Grace: The other awesome thing was last year our attendance was approximately 5,000-7,000. This year attendance was 25,000 people.
Yolan: It was really something to see because you were like ‘oh my gosh where are all these people going to fit?’ because the parade occupies a part of our parking lot. We’ve got the parade going on and we have Funland in the corner, which is an amusement group that brings their amusement activities, plus we have people still shopping because the mall is open for shopping so it was a great opportunity to have all these things happening and all these activities at the mall. It was spectacular to say the least. It was great working with the Caribana group. They were absolutely wonderful, very cooperative, very accommodating and very organized. It was a great partnership. So a good time overall, for everybody.
19. Yorkgate Mall’s calls itself “the centre of our community”. Because it’s a central hub of activity, you’ve come to know the people in the community very well. What is your perspective of Jane and Finch?
Yolan: My perspective of Jane and Finch is that it is a vibrant, multicultural place. Jane and Finch and its people have so much to offer. You’ve got different nationalities bringing their culture. And you can find it all here. You can find any nationality under the sun at Jane and Finch. With that, of course, comes tolerance. It teaches the individuals here how to appreciate each other, differences in tastes, as far as foods, ways of thinking and it’s a really great place to learn and to appreciate and respect other people. I think that having gone to school at York University, being part of the community, and now having worked in the community for the mall, it has helped me to learn to appreciate people more and learn to be all things to all men. Because I don’t think this way doesn’t mean that what they other person is thinking is incorrect or wrong. But it helps me to change my way of thinking in order that everybody lives in a harmonious way. The spill over is in the mall, too. People have complaints. They come up to complain and sometimes I have to use my listening ability because I don’t always understand what someone is saying so I need to listen a little bit harder in order to meet their needs. It does stretch you, but it’s also a lot of fun. You go away feeling like I took time today to really understand and hear what somebody had to say and try to meet their needs.
Grace: What strikes me the most (and I’ve been in almost every part of town working) is the warmth of the community and the sincerity of the people. It’s so nice to see people come up to you and say ‘we love what you’re doing with the mall. This is so nice, thank you. No one really cared before to put up the butterflies or to make the place look nice’. It’s not everywhere that you’re going to get that. You can go to different parts of Toronto and you can find a certain coldness, which you won’t find here.
Yolan: When we have events, no matter what kind of events we have for the kids, I have had the people comment on how grateful the kids are to be able to take part. They’re very polite. I get that a lot. That they love to come here because the kids are so exciting and thankful for everything that is given to them. Which is encouraging. We don’t get a lot of comments about how bratty the kids are, but mostly they’re thankful and grateful and they’re happy for what they get.
Grace: They went nuts over SpongeBob. We had SpongeBob SquarePants here. We had like 3,000 kids line up. It was spectacular. I couldn’t believe they would line up for a sponge, but they did.
20. Are you connected to the neighboring Jane and Finch Mall? If so, how?
Grace: Corporately, we’re not connected to them. They’re a different ownership and a different management. But we’re connected through community. If they have problem, they know they can call us and vice versa. We do go there and they come here. But as far as corporately, the ownerships are different.
21. Do you feel you’re in competition with the Jane and Finch Mall at all?
Grace: Of course. We’re in direct competition. I think we’re in competition with every mall. I think every mall would say the same thing. It’s a friendly competition. I think our retailers are in competition with their retailers. It’s not necessarily us, or the mall. We basically cater to our retailers and we cater to the customers and we cater to the community. Our view is not to be in direct competition with anyone. But, I’m sure if you interview any of our retailers they would say ‘yes, our jewelry shop is better than their jewelry shop’ which is just the nature of retail.
22. Do you feel any personal sense of accomplishment toward these changes, both as mall manager and a member of the community?
Grace: As far as any changes go, within the community, I think we do a lot of outreach and we try to be out there and be there for the community and we all take some responsibility for that. We try to actively brainstorm these ideas for the community, and we always have the community’s best interest in mind. So yes, the mall management office, not just me, does take some responsibility for going in that direction.
23. Has your perspective of Jane and Finch changed during your experience here? If so, how?
Grace: Mine hasn’t. I’ve always had a positive view of the area.
Yolan: I would echo the same thing, too. What annoyed me, was the fact that whenever people hear the Jane and Finch, there’s this negative stigma that’s attached to it. It was annoying, because I went to school in the neighborhood and then I worked here and I didn’t see any evidence of the stuff that people were talking about. It’s not to say that things don’t happen here, but to put that on a place every time it’s mentioned, when half the people who talked about these things probably never even visited Jane and Finch and never really knew what it was like. Meanwhile, I’m here all the time. I work, I do my banking, and I do everything else here. For me, I love being around here. I like the warmth of the people. I like the culture that’s available to me all the time.
Grace: I think what we would really like to see are actual numbers of crime statistics comparing our area to other areas. I could almost bet that we’re no more, no less, than any other areas. I think that needs to be put to the media. And I think the media needs to actually look at numbers and say ‘you know what? There were more robberies in Bloor-Yorkville, than there were in this area.’ Or there were more murders up in Maple, Vaughn or wherever than there were in this area. I think we really need to look at the numbers and the figures before we prejudge areas. It would be interesting to see those figures.
24. How much revenue does the mall gross annually?
Grace: I don’t have the authority to give out those figures. But they’re healthy.
Yolan: (laughter) We’re still employed.
25. Have there been any significant changes or additions to the mall since it was built?
Yolan: We’ve put up pylon signs, we’ve put up lamp posts, improved parking lighting and improved landscaping. The bones of the building are the same but things within the building have also changed. We put up a play area to accommodate all the preschool kids. There have been some changes but not structurally. But exterior changes and changes within the building have been made.
26. What are some future changes the mall will undergo?
Grace: The potential is always there. I think there’s a potential to have some pad sites outside the building to create smaller buildings around. I can’t see a third level going up or anything. We’re pretty limited by the space. But we always have changes in tenancies and things tend to change day by day.
27. What direction do you think Jane and Finch is headed?
Yolan: I’m hopeful it’s heading towards more positive things. If we’re any reflection about how people feel about their community, I would say definitely more positive things.
Grace: There are just so many groups now. There are so many active community groups. People are active here. They’re not afraid of work and that can only lead to positive things. I can’t see people being laidback and not caring. They are people who care about this community and they’re going to be heard, and I can only see positive things happening. You already see positive things happening.
28. What changes would you like to see made in Jane and Finch.
Yolan: For us, as a mall, I would like to see our relationships with the high school students improved. I’d like to see us do more things that will meet their needs. You can see this as a problem, but I don’t really see it as one, because in every situation there’s always a positive perspective. I know right now we have the kids coming over and sometimes they can be a little bit loud. But I think if we utilize the fact that they’re coming, it could work out to be a positive thing. So I’d like to see us be able to do more things in the community that will cater to their needs.
Grace: I’d like to see the media jump on all the positive stories rather than finding them boring and not airing anything positive that’s happening in this area. I think they have the power to change the mood in the neighborhood. If the media keeps promoting our area as a safe, fun, and good area to be in, basically that’s what people will come to believe and understand. So, I’d like to see more of that. And I think you guys are doing a great thing by putting us together.
Yolan: Absolutely, this is long overdue. It’s about time.
29. What new challenges do you anticipate?
Grace: You know what? I’m not going to anticipate anything in the future. I think we just take it day by day, and we deal with things as they come along. The only thing I can think of right now is that the population in the area will be on the increase again and that we will have to accommodate these people somehow and make sure that their needs are met. We seem to be getting more and more immigrants coming in to the area.
Yolan: I guess the same challenge that we have, making sure that the mall is a safe place for the community to come. With more and more people, and new immigrants, I think they have to be exposed. We want to continue to present services that will meet their needs. To continue to help them to see that they might have heard things about Jane and Finch, but it is a safe place to be. It is fun to be here. To continue to build on what we have and to continue to meet that need.
30. What sort of role would you like to see Yorkgate mall play in Jane and Finch’s future?
Grace: I think our little tag line being “the centre of our community” says it all. That’s what we want to be.
Yolan: I think we’ve done a lot of work in the last year profiling ourselves as the centre of the community. We’ve played host to a lot of events.
Grace: We’re just starting that whole objective is in the initial stages. To us, we’ve been overwhelmed and we think we’ve done so much, but there is so much more we could do, and so much more we are going to do and people are taking note. We have the Canadian government taking note of the programs. The city taking note of what we’re doing and wanting to join with us and promoting other programs and events. People are just coming out of the woodwork and saying ‘we want to jump on that bandwagon’. I can see more happening and I can see us continuing to be the centre of the community.
Any finals thoughts you would like to add?
Yolan: I would just like to say that it’s been great working in the community. I can’t think of any place else to work. I’m sure Grace would echo this. I used to work downtown and it’s a totally different ballgame. Here, it’s fun. Things are a little bit more relaxed and people are real. They’re real, they’re genuine. You don’t feel like you have to present a front. You can just be yourself, do your thing and enjoy your work. I think to get up everyday and come to work and enjoy your work and enjoy the people that you work with and the neighborhood that you work in says a lot. Not many people can say that.
We would like to thank Yolan Bowen and Grace Russo for their time in conducting this interview. - Jane-Finch.com staff