When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go - downtown
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know - downtown
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?
OK, Petula Clark wasn’t singing about Ontario cities when she scored a big hit in 1974 with Downtown.
But why did that song come to my mind reading Ontario papers this week?
First, let’s look at Sault Ste. Marie, the third largest city in Northern Ontario with a population of 75,000.
Tuesday the Sault Star reported that Council had voted 9 - 3 (one member absent) to approve 42,000 square feet of office space outside of the downtown area.
Who cares, you say?
Well this approval:
1. Insulted the Official Plan.
2. Was uncalled for when about 500,000 square feet of available commercial space currently exists.
3. Was contrary to the Planning Department’s recommendation.*
Writer Elaine Della-Matta noted that those voting for the office space had their reasons.
One said “he's been shut out of (downtown) businesses because he can't get in with his wheelchair.”
Another Councillor noted it is “difficult to find large accessible spaces in the downtown area.”
And, finally, it was argued the downtown shouldn’t be sold short but the rest of the town shouldn’t be forgotten.
I’m thinking Mayor Roswell (who opposed the change) got it right:
"Council's decision tonight is going to change things. This is a major shift in where our community is going."
Meanwhile, this week the Intelligencer in Belleville (population 50,000) talked about what happened to their downtown.
Apparently when the Quinte Mall opened in the early 1970s “merchants were skeptical that it would take away customers but they soon learned the truth.”
"That knocked the hell out if us. "It was difficult. Some people thought it wouldn't hurt us," Charlie Kammer, a downtown merchant for 42 years told the paper.
Kammer remembers seven hardware stores and eight drugstores operating in the core.
Consultants have addressed the downtown problems says reporter Brice McVicar.
A revitalization program, co-ordinating the resources of various departments was suggested by du Toit Associates Ltd in 1980.
An emphasis on waterfront recreation, free public transit and a the placement of a banner near the Quinte Mall that would say something like "Experience Shopping in Downtown Belleville" was recommended by Alexander V. Crate Consultants in a 1984 report.
And in 1992 (Loughheed and Associates) wanted to close streets and develop an Apr.-Oct./ pedestrian promenade.
Apparently things are slowly improving. Mayor Neil Ellis believes “that downtown merchants are carving their own niche, rather than competing against bigger rivals.”
Belleville consultants: Check your Blackberries, the Soo’ll be calling soon.
*This raises a larger question: Why do we really need planners with their big salaries, large offices and strange vocabularies when we have politicians who can do the job. We’ll save this one for another day.