Thriving downtown a team effort, with or without...
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Aug 23, 2012  |  Vote 0    0

Thriving downtown a team effort, with or without Heritage District

St. Marys Journal Argus

Andrea Macko, Dishing It Out

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the stack of paper: are we still hashing this out?

It’s not a stalled credit card dispute or business deal that I’m lamenting, but rather, our town’s (in)decision on creating a Heritage Conservation District.

Blame it, perhaps, on journalistic fatigue: I covered Council’s deliberations on the District while I was a reporter and, as distantly as 2010, I was complaining in this paper’s editorial pages about the then-council’s lack of movement on the issue. After the council of the day made a decision, it was challenged at the Ontario Municipal Board. And so, here we are with a public meeting scheduled for Sept. 17 on this latest version of the plan.

Every few years, our collective sense of what our downtown “is” comes to a head, and I think we’re there again. The spaces that are occupied are doing a bang-up job of enticing customers and clientele: most of our retailers have attractive, bright, regularly changing windows. Heck, even our insurers and lawyers are in on the action.

But it is those unoccupied spaces that are slowing us down. One of those spaces on the south side of Queen Street has been filled, but there remain gaping holes which haunt our definition of a busy downtown. It should go without saying that, if one wants to sell or lease a space, it should be as attractive as possible: take a peek inside and judge for yourself their success.

If property owners can’t be forced to deal with appearances, I think that the Hospital Auxiliary’s recent promotional window was a good way to take the edge off of the eyesore of these vacant storefronts (Action Medical had a similar idea in the space now annexed by Sun Rayz Tanning). Might other community groups seize the free publicity of a storefront for their cause? Or perhaps the BIA could take a cue from Stratford and cover these windows with historic images… maybe of the same building from more prosperous times, to suggest that all may not be lost.

Window views aside, it’s the big ticket items — new roofs, foundation repair and surface cleaning — that challenge property owners the most. But delaying this type of work often challenges the property’s integrity, too. With many of our buildings aging well past the century mark, how does your definition of our downtown suggest these large-scale repairs take place? Should we just slap siding over stonework and call it a day, or thoughtfully look at what makes our town special and work together to maintain it? I say this as someone who owns a property in the proposed district, so I am well aware of the tenuous balance between upkeep and budget. But I am also aware of esthetics; I want my building to look as good as possible as a reflection on my business and on our community.

Surely, Council has an eye turned toward towns like Bayfield, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford, which have heritage districts and are bustling tourism destinations. Is this part of the secret to small-town success?

But the district must keep in mind the challenges small businesses face. Individual designations haven’t done much to improve the overall look of the downtown; eyesores remain eyesores despite a beautifully refurbished neighbour. Property ownership may be libertarian in nature, but we all have to work together in the end for the sake of our town — I don’t think time is on our side when it comes to making a move. Hopefully this council, the third to look at heritage districts, sees a plan that’s ready to move on.

Tomatoes, cheese and herbs work beautifully in this tart that looks impressive, but is as easy as pie.

French Tomato Tart

(From davidlebovitz.com)

Crust:

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup unsalted butter, chilled, cubed

1/2 tsp. salt

1 egg

3 tbsp. cold water

Mix flour and salt in a bowl. Add butter and use hands to break in the butter until mixture is crumbly, and form a well in the centre. Mix egg with water, then add and stir until dough forms. Roll onto lightly floured surface until large enough to line a tart or pie pan (you will have extra; wrap tightly with plastic wrap and store in the fridge).

Filling:

Dijon mustard

2-3 large tomatoes

2 tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 tbsp. fresh or dried mixed herbs, like thyme, dill, mint or rosemary

1-250g package goat cheese, sliced into rounds.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spread a thin layer of mustard on the bottom of tart dough and let it sit a few minutes to dry out. Slice tomatoes and arrange on top in a single layer. Drizzle olive oil on top. Sprinkle with half the herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange goat cheese slices on top, then add more herbs. Bake for roughly half an hour, until cheese is browned and tomatoes are tender.

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