A business owner is citing the City of Airdrie's bureaucratic processes as a reason behind her storefront's recent closure – a claim City officials are refuting.
Angry Bear Growlers co-owner Julie Schille took to social media last week to criticize what she deemed an excessive amount of red tape from the City of Airdrie to help get the business' second location off and running last year.
“We faced very unexpected base building code issues with the plaza we were in, causing unrealistic restrictions on our occupancy,” she wrote on Angry Bear Growlers' Instagram account on Nov. 21, just over a week after the business shut up shop in Airdrie.
Originally based in Canmore, Angry Bear Growlers is a distributor of Alberta craft beers. The business operates a taproom in Canmore, where craft beer lovers can sample and purchase beers from many of the province's microbreweries, either in canned form or growlers.
In September 2021, the business expanded by opening a second location in east Airdrie, along Kingsview Boulevard SE.
Schille said she and her husband, who operate the business together, were originally planning on setting up their second location and company headquarters in Calgary, but the couple came to prefer Airdrie's small-town feel.
During their search for an ideal storefront in Airdrie, Schille said they settled on a bay in a business plaza along Kingsview Boulevard because of the way the space was divided – one-third of the venue at the front of the building could be the retail storefront, while the remaining square footage in the back, separated by a wall, could house the business' offices and warehouse space.
“The [City] planning department wrote us up this letter of approval and we moved forward with the lease to build out the space,” Schille said.
But problems arose even before Angry Bear Growlers poured its first beer in Airdrie. According to Schille, zoning limitations meant only 10 per cent of the building's total square footage could be used for retail, which indirectly meant their occupancy was limited to 10 people, including customers and employees.
“The next we heard was that we can't supersede the building inspector because of the zoning limitations of this building,” she said
“At that point, obviously, we'd committed to the lease and built out the space and spent a crazy amount of money creating a business we planned to have there for a while and not just over a year.”
In order to increase their occupancy and find a solution to make the business more viable, Schille said she spoke with a business inspector and an architect, and also reached out to Airdrie Mayor Peter Brown and the rest of council.
That correspondence led to a meeting with the City of Airdrie's economic development team and the business inspector to determine next steps forward. Schille added their recommendation was to apply for a zoning variance, which would essentially allow the City to consider Angry Bear Growlers' request individually rather than as a tenant of the plaza.
But Schille said their application for a variance sat in backlog for several months, and the process proved more expensive than she and her husband had been told it would.
During that time, she said the business added a few additional seats and tables after being told by multiple parties that it wouldn't be an issue, but that led to an anonymous complaint about Angry Bear Growlers not complying with the building code. The additional seats were then removed.
After months of waiting, Schille said she received an email that the company's variance application had been denied.
“They included a ton of fine print from the building code – again, this came down to the inspector's interpretation of the building code,” she said.
“That perhaps was the most frustrating part – having opened this exact same business in Canmore and dealing with building inspectors there, the building code is so complicated and it seems each inspector has a different interpretation of it. This individual inspector's interpretation cost us our business and our livelihood.”
While the option of applying for a rezoning for the whole plaza was provided as another option, Schille said that was too cost-prohibitive – as was finding another space to lease in Airdrie.
But that solution would have been easier said than done, according to the business owner, bringing up the lease they have with their landlord.
“That's still very much something we have to face," she said. “We may be facing a legal battle over digging out of our lease, which is just going to cost us even more at this point. It was never as simple as up and leaving and moving."
Given how much the business had already invested and spent on bureaucratic processes, Schille said she and her husband eventually made the tough call to cut their losses.
“You can spend that money and take those steps, but it doesn't actually guarantee any kind of solution or success, because if there's a certain percentage of vacancies in the right classification of zoning, they're not going to approve a change to that existing space,” she said.
Schille said the final nail in the coffin was that Angry Bear Growlers' liquor license had also been issued conditionally upon finding a resolution to the occupancy issue.
“One of the lessons we learned here is that we're far from experts in building codes and municipal red tape that you have to jump through,” she said. “I will say it wasn't easy in Canmore – we certainly had challenges there with the municipality as well – but our challenges in Airdrie were completely unexpected.”
When reached for comment, the City of Airdrie Manager of Community Growth Jamal Ramjohn said he sympathized with Angry Bear Growlers' plight, but stated he disagreed it was excessive red tape that led to the storefront's closure.
“First and foremost, any time a business wants to operate in Airdrie, we want to make that experience as smooth and straightforward as possible," he said. “I absolutely understand the term red tape. In this particular case, I'd say from a municipal standpoint – and I've done a lot of work throughout Alberta – this isn't exactly red tape. It can certainly appear like it.”
Ramjohn said any business in Airdrie needs to adhere to the City's land-use bylaw – which he added can be a little bit flexible upon consideration – but that another document that requires strict adherence to is the provincial building code.
In the case of Angry Bear Growlers, he argued it wasn't the land-use bylaw that was the issue, but rather the building code.
“When a business goes to build in any case, there are national and provincial building codes that need to be adhered to,” he explained. “Where there's a little bit of leeway in zoning and land-use bylaw, there's very little leeway – it's quite black and white – when it comes to building codes. Like any municipality, our City takes that very seriously, particularly when we're dealing with a life health and safety standpoint.”
He said Angry Bears' decision to increase their occupancy stemmed from a desire to pivot the business model to allow for in-house alcohol consumption beyond just samples.
“That is where the issue [arose],” he said. “They were operating fine, but to increase that [occupancy limit], this was something we identified when they first started, with just tasting, they realized the building classification itself (not the zoning, but the classification of the building code) would not allow any more patrons in beyond the 10 they already had the approval for.”