Big dreams for Fort Langley
Eric Woodward has a vision for Fort Langley.
The real estate investor and property manager, who owns a large stock of commercial property in the village, wants to see it become one of the premier weekend pedestrian destination spots for visitors from other parts of the Lower Mainland.
Woodward, who began investing in commercial real estate in Fort Langley in 2005, was recently elected president of the Fort Langley Business Improvement Area. He is in the midst of several upgrades to his Fort Langley properties, including a facelift and new parking lot for the Fort Mall property which houses the B.C. liquor store and several other tenants.
He also owns four commercial buildings north of the Fort Langley Community Hall, on the west side of Glover Road. He owns the former Frontier Building Supply building and recently bought the front half of the lot the Fort IGA stood on. He has a total of five commercial lots on the east side of Glover Road.
He plans an extensive development on that side of the street, and expects to put an application into the Township sometime later this year or in 2013.
The Lee family retained the rest of the IGA lot, and are currently building a new store on it to replace the grocery store that was destroyed in an arson fire in January, 2011.
He didn’t deliberately set out to become a commercial land baron in Fort Langley, but he does have a deep interest in Langley in general, and Fort Langley in particular. He grew up in Langley and graduated from Langley Secondary School.
About 1990, he began a career in the tech industry and eventually started doing start-ups, at a time when there was intense investor interest in anything related to high tech. He began Internet Direct in 1994, and in 1996 co-founded Mail.com. That company completed an IPO in 1997-98, in what Woodward says was “a crazy time, before the market shook itself out.”
He made enough money from his ventures in that field to start looking at other investments, and after investigating what the future held for Fort Langley, started his real estate investing. At that time, Bedford Landing had been approved and work on the new Golden Ears Bridge was getting underway.
It was clear to him that the future in Fort Langley would be quite different. No longer would it be a town divided in two every time a ferry arrived at the McMillan Island dock, and the Bedford development ensured there would be more local residents.
“A lot of people didn’t think (these changes) would be a good thing. I thought it would be a great thing.”
Some of his early investments were properties that had been on the market for some time, and didn’t have the greatest tenants. Some of the buildings were run down, and there was little apparent interest, which served to sharpen his investment antennae.
Woodward didn’t buy on a whim. He looked into Township plans for the Fort Langley area and “literally sat and watched traffic for two days before I bought anything.”
After he bought several buildings on the west side of Glover, he looked for other opportunities. All along, his idea was that the buildings he owned should be put in good repair, and have unique tenants who would serve to attract visitors.
“Nobody from Abbotsford was going to make a day trip to 88 Avenue and 208 Street, and I asked where would the 25,000 new residents of Willoughby go to?”
He wants the new buildings he is planning to have retail space on the first floor and office space on the second floor. The retail units would not be large, but serve to attract unique niche businesses that will offer visitors an eclectic mix of shopping.
“I want to place more business and office space in Fort Langley. I’d like to create a bit more of a business feel.”
Woodward has no problem with the strict facade guidelines that are in place in Fort Langley to give the commercial space a heritage look. Given the Fort’s rich history, it makes perfect sense, he says.
However, “Fort Langley is still at a crossroads. It is still a seasonal town. It does not generate a lot of revenue from January to March. The onus is still on business owners to create a unique business and a following,” he says.
He cites Cranberries Naturally and Wendel’s as two very successful businesses that have created strong followings, with customers coming from many areas specifically to shop there.
He is hoping that other commercial property owners will buy into his vision to make the village far more appealing and pedestrian-friendly.
That’s what he would like to achieve as chair of the Fort Langley BIA. He wants to increase the number of visitors and have a specific strategy to attract day visitors from the south of Fraser area.
Woodward believes the pending tolls on the Port Mann Bridge create yet another opportunity to encourage more people south of the Fraser to visit Fort Langley.
He believes that some of the advantages he has, in being landlord at many buildings, is that he can work towards having a more complete mix of tenants.
He doesn’t want to rent to more than one tenant in a specific business sector — he wants them to do well, because when they do well, his buildings will stay full and the wider mix of businesses will attract more customers.
“I enforce this and I tell tenants I will enforce this for them. Over time, I believe we will end up with an eclectic and unique mix of shops. This is something that fractured ownership is unable to provide.”
Woodward acknowledges that there are challenges ahead — one of the biggest ones being a lack of parking in Fort Langley, particularly when there are major events underway.
“The Township needs to come up with some type of system to create parking.”
Woodward, who lives in Fort Langley, says “I’m here for the long term.”
He is excited about Fort Langley’s future and is glad he can play a part in making the village a more attractive and dynamic location for businesses.