08/19/2012 02:00 EDT | Updated 10/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Elliot Lake: Residents Prepare For A Winter Without A Mall


ELLIOT LAKE, Ont. - The days are still long and warm but winter is on the minds of many residents of Elliot Lake, a community nestled among the rugged beauty of rocks, forests and lakes of northern Ontario — known now across Canada as the town whose mall collapsed.

Now the remains of the Algo Centre Mall stand as mute evidence of the June disaster that has robbed the town of its main gathering place.

"People have nowhere to go — that was their favourite place to be," said Melanie Lafontaine, who works just down the road.

"They liked to hang out there in the mall. That's just how people were."

It's a refrain heard across the town of about 13,500 people as they try to come to grips with the loss of a building that was so much more than just another shopping centre.

Sure it had been leaky — buckets to catch the water were a constant presence — there were holes in ceilings, rust on beams.

But the mall provided warmth in winter, cooling in summer. A place to socialize, have a coffee, get some exercise, and shop, all in one place. Sixty per cent of the town's retail space was in the mall — 18 stores, nine government offices, and the library. All gone.

If the isolation of Canada's "uranium capital" — about 30 kilometres north of the TransCanada — is one of its splendours, it's also become something of a curse given the loss of the mall.

Many residents are on fixed income, unable to drive, or bear the cost of getting to other communities to shop. Sudbury, the nearest city, is more than two hours away.

Winter is already being felt as parents prepare to send children back to school, with boots, snow suits, mitts and hats top of the clothing list. Except, with the disappearance of Zellers, the Bargain Shop and Dollarama, there's no longer a handy place to buy those items.

"You can't buy underwear in Elliot Lake today," one woman observed.

In addition, about 100 people — many of them younger — lost their mall jobs. Replacing those won't be easy.

Capt. Pamela Stanger, with the Salvation Army, said she's already seen an increase in need for both the drop-in centre and thrift store the organization runs.

The mall, she said, was a place to congregate and exercise daily, especially in winter when temperatures plummet and snowdrifts rise.

"They need a place where they can afford to go to hang out," she said.

Summer has allowed for relative ease of movement and people have been finding alternatives: the doughnut shop, fast-food place, or another restaurant.

But it's just not the same, somehow.

"They've really felt that they've been separated," said Joyce Cyr, president of the local chamber of commerce. "We're looking at a long, cold winter."

Fran Perkins was in the mall performing with her community theatre group when the rooftop garage caved in June 23, killing two, injuring 20, and sparking days of frantic search and rescue efforts.

No one in her group was hurt, but they did lose equipment such as the stage and lights.

"I'm concerned about winter," Perkins said of her fellow seniors. "I don't know where those people are going to go."

Last week, judicial inquiry Commissioner Paul Belanger and his lawyers spent several days listening to residents' concerns about what happened and what's to come as the days shorten and wind begins to howl.

The inquiry into the collapse and the emergency response is due to begin formal hearings in the dead of winter — likely January.

One of the lawyers, Bruce Carr-Harris, said the probe should offer some comfort to the community — at least by answering the questions people have about a tragedy that has become so personal.

"We've sensed that the community is still traumatized by the event — it's no doubt diminished, but it's still there," Carr-Harris said.

"We hope to get those answers and we hope that will help with the healing."

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