It is alarming to think that forty years have passed since the Big Dig downtown North Bay. Where did the time go? If any of the naysayers about the brick pavers are still here, those bricks stood up to the wear and tear better than you thought.
The whole dream that the Big Dig would add vitality to the downtown shopping experience actually did work for a few years. Then came the Malls. The downturns in the economy. Fires. Strip malls luring businesses away from the expensive downtown. The mini recession. Then little problems like parking, snow, and the comfort and convenience of the mall shopping. Finally, homeless people, drugs, Covid and internet shopping.
The Downtown is wheezing, almost at the death-rattle stage, but there is still time to fix it. Revitalize might not be the word we need, but let that pass as an interim term for the repaving and sidewalk improvements now underway. Let us face reality: the Downtown is never going to be a viable shopping area as it now stands. Few people even want to go there. We need to change the nature of the area so it will entice permanent residents and yet have it as an attractive destination for tourists and residents alike. We need to Re-Purpose the downtown.
This Phase II is going to take a few years but we can start by encouraging the build of new apartments and condominiums that will draw people back to the area. Stores that are struggling should be encouraged to move to mini shopping centres within the city where they can create unique community centres with social clubs and speciality shops like appliance and computer repairs, ethnic food emporiums, sports and athletic clubs, and so on.
By encouragement, I mean property tax relief from the City, aided perhaps by upper government grants in the Re-Purposing experiment that other cities may copy as they too try to revitalize their downtowns. We did it for the Airport properties, why not downtown? Re-vitalization money is available but this goes beyond fixing roads and sidewalks, adding outdoor lighting fixtures, flower pots and murals.
As the new downtown changes from shopping to residential and entertainment, the fast-food places may find it advantageous to relocate as well, maybe following the businesses to the mini community shopping centres throughout the city. The boutique shoppes will be encouraged to stay, as will the upper-scale restaurants, galleries, artisan shops, and ‘night clubs’ as part of the entertainment cohort of the new downtown. The Capitol Centre can anchor the entertainment focus but some convention facility would be welcomed to attract visitors during daylight working hours.
Professional offices could be encouraged to migrate back to the downtown; they being lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants, financial consultants, etc., all of whom may find contract work at the nearby City Hall, Health Unit, and DNSSAB, and other government agencies. Bright new offices on the first floors of a residential tower might be appealing, both to staff and clients.
The new downtown ought to retain a couple of convenience stores although they will be called ‘bodegas’ in the New York City fashion. The one remaining grocery store may have to expand its premises and offerings.
There will be, of course, room for a couple of classy women’s clothing boutiques, a haberdashery for gentlemen, a jewellery store or two, a Starbucks and Tims – one only of each - as Twiggs will be on the verge of the new downtown. Okay, maybe another donut shoppe serving organic crullers and green teas.
There will be couple of issues that may be a little touchy. The bureaucrats at City Hall may not like the idea of doing away with paid parking in the new downtown, but we need to stop penalizing tourists and residents (or annoying them with those ticket kiosks) for spending their money in the downtown. Of course, any new builds of the upper-scale condos and apartments must have their own underground private parking.
The other thorny issue will be encouraging the slum landlords to move from the new downtown. Either they must comply with the new Downtown Improvement Area Housing Bylaw, or be complied out – nicely – by the Health Unit, Bylaw Officers, Building Department, Fire Department – you know how it’s done – sort of like how the City handled the mess on Cassells Street.
The new Main Street downtown – I’m calling it from Cassells to Sherbrooke – already has surrounding amenities like churches, The Golden Age, the Empire and Marina Point, a couple of motels, post office, drug store, the museum, the library, Greco’s, a modest LCBO, the Transit depot, a brewery, and of course, access to the Waterfront. We may even get a nearby year-around indoor market in the future. A new daycare facility that can use the splash pad might be needed but it will not require a skating rink. A gym would be nice.
In case any elected officials have doubts about the re-purposing of our downtown they could take a reimbursable trip to Fenelon Falls or St Jacobs to see what these, albeit smaller, towns did to “revitalize” their downtowns. New candidates for office may have to pay out-of-pocket or do the virtual visit thing. The internet will give numerous examples of big cities in the United States that have repurposed old industrial and commercial buildings into mixed residential buildings thus creating spaces where it is safe and pleasant to walk and experience boutique shopping. Our city is somewhere in between the Fenelon Falls model and Rockford, Illinois example, but it can be done.
What we need is someone to champion this idea of re-purposing our downtown. Better still, a couple of property developers that see a future in North Bay and are willing to invest in the idea of a new North Bay downtown. Maybe we should retire that term, “downtown”, and just call it North Bay Centre. Perhaps we could afford one of those electronic signs that says “Welcome to the Heart of North Bay”. Just saying.