By: Jill Tham
Downtown communities are the key ingredient of any great city. Yet, over the years there has been a decline in foot traffic as customers were lured away, first by shopping malls located on the out skirts of town and now by big box stores.
For many individuals a stroll down the main street of the heart of their community brings back fond memories of shopping, entertainment and dining. If you grew up in Niagara Falls you clearly remember shopping at Rosbergs Department Store. St. Catharines fondly recalls Diana Sweets and Thorold reminisces about the Bright Spot Restaurant. Downtown communities are in need of revitalization now more than ever. After all, a dynamic downtown is a crucial part of a growing city.
Three Mayors were questioned regarding their plan to rejuvenate their downtown cores. Three different communities with three unique approaches.
Mayor Jim Diodati City of Niagara Falls
What are Niagara fall’s plans to revitalize the downtown core?
“Aggressively, we brought in an outside consultant. We put forward a strategic plan to focus on post-secondary registration and entrepreneurship. We are going to create a hybrid. Instead of graduating and looking for a job, we want them to get their graduation in one hand and their business in the other. A century ago you didn’t wait for the job to come to you, you created your own. This educational institution will be the core. Rather than coming to the core they will be living and working in it. Not just visiting it.”
What do you think has been an issue for businesses in the downtown area?
“Currently there is no anchor, no major draw to the downtown. What’s old is new again. People have become anti-franchise in some ways. They want the one offs and they don’t want to shop at a store that is exactly like everything else. They are not shopping for needs they are shopping for wants – they want the experience. We will put in the major bones that will appeal to the masses. I am confident we are on the right track and will be very successful.”
What types of businesses will thrive in the downtown?
“Everything – A place to get your hair cut, grocery stores, restaurants and lots of unique retail stores. We have the rail, the bus, city hall, and lots of professionals. The Go Train is another piece that will impact on the plan. We are laser focused and we have done our homework. We went looking for clues and we spent years researching and investigating. We went to Pittsburgh to see how they reinvested and how they went from rough belt to renaissance. Downtown Niagara Falls will become hip like Queen Street West in Toronto.”
Final Comments from Mayor Diodati
“You want to bet on something, bet on the downtown core. It will be a good bet. We don’t want people that are going to watch the game, we want people that are going to play the game and help bring vision and investment. What we are asking for is all hands on deck and everyone will benefit from the high tide that will raise all boats. We believe it will happen swiftly and quickly and downtown will be a cool place to be.”
Mayor Ted Luciani City of Thorold
What are Thorold’s plans for revitalizing the downtown area?
“The new streetscape Master Plan, which will come to council for approval in the next few months, will see the City make improvements to sidewalks, lighting, parking and other amenities to assist in our downtown’s continuing evolution and growth. The city will also see a major medical clinic open in the near future offering services Thorold residents haven’t had access to locally for some time. Plans for the future include building on the current successes, offering innovative and realistic services and amenities for visitors and residents.”
What do you think has posed an issue for businesses in the downtown area?
“Resolving parking concerns – including availability and accessibility for downtown residents and our thriving businesses is a priority for this council. As of this moment, council will be asked to approve the membership for an ad-hoc Parking Advisory Committee comprised of volunteer stakeholders who will be tasked with developing options that council can consider this year. We anticipate a resolution soon. No matter what, I want to see the Thorold tradition of free parking continue in the future.”
Are there any types of public policy that affect improvements to the downtown?
“Planning and heritage are major factors in Thorold’s downtown; but we’re also thinking forward. The BIA (Business Improvement Area) will be offering charging stations for electric vehicles, for example. And the BIA undertook a partnership with Thorold Secondary School, where tech students designed and fabricated unique bike-lock stations for Front Street and downtown. There’s so much opportunity for partnerships like this.”
Final comments from Mayor Luciani
“Thorold is one of the only municipalities in Niagara with large parcels of residents and industrial land outside the Greenbelt that are still available for development. When, not if, but when daily GO service comes to Niagara, those who have had the foresight to invest now will likely find they are in the right place at the right time.”
Mayor Walter Sendzik City of St. Catharines
What factors have prompted the revitalization plan for St. Catharines?
“The previous council initiated the creative cluster plan that identified if investments were made into the arts, it could become a catalyst for future economic growth and bring traffic to downtown St. Catharines. Within that came, through a fortune of good events and good planning, the opportunity to build a new arena, performing arts centre and relocate the Marilyn Walker School to the downtown. If you look at any successful downtown revitalization plan in North America it includes these public buildings that attract arts and sports. And with the expansion of products from the Performing Arts Centre and Meridian Centre there are year round reasons to come to our downtown.”
How many jobs will be created with these two venues?
“Brock University and the City of St. Catharines are partnering, so with the move of the Marilyn Walker School from Brock University’s campus some jobs are spoken for. The core is not the new jobs created, but the attraction to people downtown. For example, The Tragically Hip concert sold out at 6000. The impact will be in the tens of millions of dollars.”
How does parking affect the downtown?
“A brand new parking garage has been constructed across from the Performing Arts Centre as well as another new parking lot by the Meridian Centre. We have available parking spaces on the street. We are encouraging people to take a taxi downtown or use public transit and not have to worry about driving home. I have to give credit to the St. Catharines Public Transit. If you get on the bus two hours before the game you get on and off for free.”
Final comments from Mayor Sendzik
“City staff have done a very good job in creating the conditions for what is going to be one of the best downtowns in Ontario because of the livability of the space. We have a safe downtown and it’s getting its groove back. It’s not just a St. Catharines downtown, it’s a Niagara downtown. The investments that have been made are a benefit to all of Niagara. Whether you live in Port Colborne, Niagara-on-the-Lake or Welland, what we have done has added to that compliment. Strong downtowns will make Niagara a strong community.”