Tools in the downtown toolbox
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Sep 04, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Tools in the downtown toolbox

St. Marys Journal Argus

Implementing standards to ensure downtown properties don’t look too run-down is one issue. It’s an entirely different challenge to decide on standards to measure how effectively someone is working to ensure those same properties eventually end up looking great.

Right now St. Marys Town Council is dealing with both of those issues.

At a meeting Tuesday, Sept. 2, Council got its first opportunity to hear from recently-hired retail retension and recruitment coordinator Krista Linklater. Hers is a six-month contract position created by Council in cooperation with Partners in Employment, at the request of the Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC).

When Council agreed to create the position, there was recognition that the duration of employment is inadequate to truly accomplish any more than a very rudimentary level of “retension” or “recruitment.” But paying for the 15-hours-per-week job was all the funds councillors felt were available in the budget at the time, and they figured the person that was hired might be able to prove the worthiness of the position by making at least some headway and showing some preliminary results. If results were evident after six months, perhaps there would be an appetite to maintain the position.

Tuesday's presentation was actually delivered largely by Chief Building Official Grant Brouwer, to whom Linklater answers at Town Hall, and it was described as the first of a number of updates during the six-month term. But if EDAC and their new employee hope to see the position continue and grow, the pressure is already on to show more than just a hint of promise for the future.

Brouwer did outline some concrete steps that Linklater is taking. They included exploring the idea of attracting a craft brewery to the Town-owned VIA Rail station; establishing a model for "four-in-one" retail outlets in vacant stores, whereby several related by distinct small businesses join forces to create a mini-mall inside a single downtown property; and working with storefront property owners to devise short-term, temporary lease agreements to allow small business retailers to set up so-called "pop-up" stores during busy seasons such as pre-Christmas, or busy days such as the Blue Jays/Baseball Hall of Fame downtown festival.

"A lot of the goals and the ideas that have been presented are not new," veteran Councillor Don Van Galen commented after hearing the Brouwer/Linklater update. "I've seen some of them before; other Councils have seen them before. What has been absent has been the follow-through."

Several councillors agreed it's nice to finally have someone given the specific task of attracting and maintaining downtown retailers. But the noted Linklater's term is short, and there will need to be some way for them to determine if it's worth continuing the position beyond half a year.

"I would like to have a better idea of what success looks like," Councillor Lynn Hainer told Brouwer.

An issue of equal or perhaps great significance brought back to Council this week, meanwhile, came in the form of minutes from the most recent meeting of the downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA) on Aug. 7. (The organization, which receives a good portion of its funding through the town and has its budget approved by Town Council, was set to hold its September meeting this Thursday). A quick glance at those minutes made it clear that most downtown business operators are concerned about an effort by Council to implement an amended Property Standards Bylaw in the core-area Heritage Conservation District.

“As a BIA we disagree strongly with the updated proposal of Property Standards for the Heritage District,” reads the motion that was passed at the Aug. 7 meeting. “We believe this updated version is not addressing the specific issues, such as permanent empty buildings, and deals in generalities.”

Comments are also included in the meeting minutes from Councillor Carey Pope, Council’s liaison on the BIA. “The town has already a property standards bylaw, very general and nothing to support and maintain the downtown heritage district buildings,” Pope is quoted in the minutes. “(It) basically lacked any tools in the toolbox.”

With both the standards bylaw issue and the retail retension and recruitment position, the risks of doing nothing are high. The challenge, of course, is deciding what’s the right path forward.

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