Two years ago, things looked bleak for small businesses in downtown Lac-Mégantic.
The train disaster that killed 47 people in the community of 6,000 in Quebec's Eastern Townships also destroyed much of its historic town centre. Thirty buildings were levelled in the explosion and the fires.
Another 37 downtown buildings that were still standing after the flames were put out were torn down over what town officials described as fears of contamination from the millions of barrels of crude oil spilled from the derailed train. The old downtown remains a work site as the decontamination process continues.
But just outside it, a strip of commercial buildings is creating a new central business district, and for some merchants business is better than before.
"It's not unanimous but in the majority, yes, sales have increased," says Pascal Hallé, the president of the Mégantic regional chamber of commerce.
It's something Mr. Hallé knows firsthand. He's the owner of Bar L'Enjeu, a pool hall that was in the old downtown and is now situated in the town's new commercial strip, the Promenade Papineau. He says that the support of the local population, along with an increased number of tourists, has brought traffic to local business. "We've had two good periods of tourism during the last two summers," he says. "People are coming to see how we're rebuilding Lac-Mégantic."
Other business owners forced to move to the new downtown have also seen business return to the level it was at before the tragedy.
"It's been a good recovery," says Élizabeth Roy, the owner of Au Coin d'Émillia, a children's clothing store. She says the majority of her customers from before the disaster are back and she's very optimistic about the future of business in the town.
It's not just relocated businesses that are feeling optimistic. François St-Pierre opened a men's clothing store, Nouvelle Vague, on the commercial strip in October, 2014. "It's very encouraging, there's a beautiful vibrancy in the downtown," he says.
But not everyone likes the new commercial district.
Local activist Jonathan Santerre calls it another tragedy. He says there was a lack of transparency around the city's decision to buy and tear down the downtown buildings that were still standing. Eight properties were expropriated. Some of those buildings were on ground that later proved to be uncontaminated, a local newspaper discovered under an access to information request.
Town officials, though, say they had no choice but to move fast to help local business owners.
"We needed to provide them with some sort of infrastructure so they could start business again," says Marie-Claude Arguin, Lac-Mégantic's deputy town manager. She says business owners who had been based in the downtown were eager to get back in business and were looking all over town for space to rent.
Originally, the town planned temporary structures so businesses could reopen. "At the time, we thought that we were only months away from going back into our former downtown," she says. "It ended up proving impossible due to the risk of contamination." That's when the decision was made to build permanent structures.
But the new downtown means a loss of the town's heritage says Mr. Santerre. The old downtown was full of turn-of-the-century buildings, and he describes the new one as looking like a suburban strip mall. He's not alone. A nearby business owner who declined to speak on the record voiced similar concerns.
Still, the feeling isn't universal. "I love it, it's very pretty," children's clothing retailer Ms. Roy says of the new commercial district.
The town is now beginning the process of selling the new commercial buildings, which were funded by the province – provincial law forbids municipalities in Quebec from owning properties that are primarily used for leasing purposes.
Ms. Arguin says the town has now approached every business owner in the new commercial area and told them how much it will cost them to buy the properties. Each one will get a chance to purchase the property where their business is located before it's offered to anyone else. Several of the business owners say they're still deciding whether they'll take up the offer.
While just a few metres away, work on the decontamination of the area where the disaster took place is continuing, and is expected to be finished by the end of 2016. But now, Lac-Mégantic's new downtown appears to be finding a new normal.
Mr. Hallé says the challenges of running a business in Lac-Mégantic are now the same as those businesses face anywhere else in Quebec: keeping customers happy, minimizing costs and ensuring profitability.