These are exciting times for the Elmira BIA. Or they could be. The opportunity exists to stir itself out of its long reverie.
The arrival of $90,000 – essentially a settlement for the organization to drop its stance in the OMB fight against Wal-Mart – could be the catalyst for renewed interest in the core, and those who do business there. The dollar amount is relatively paltry, but it could be worth far more if it actually leads the BIA to rejuvenate itself.
Just getting together to decide what to do with the money would be a good first step. The organization, in danger of disbanding five years ago, has seen dwindling participation. Getting together to discuss the funds could lead to tackling the larger issues, the ones that continue to plague downtown Elmira (and, to be fair, downtowns everywhere).
At present, the BIA is leaning towards investing the money, using the income to augment its annual budget of $30,000, much of which goes toward beautification efforts such as hanging flower baskets. A few more dollars could fund, for instance, a façade- improvement program to help spruce up the downtown.
More helpful, however, would be the development of a cohesive vision for the core, a strategy to provide what the public wants in order to attract people downtown. That could include longer hours and marketing expertise to make stores more in line with the expectations of today’s customers. In the bigger picture, that would mean attracting the kinds of businesses that bring people in and entice them to linger, such as outdoor cafes to take play up the downtown’s advantages in the better weather.
The BIA has recognized an opportunity presented by a growing Elmira. Many of the new homes are within walking distance of the core; the goal now is to give them a reason to walk, and stop, downtown.
What’s really needed is an entrepreneur or two who sees the potential. An active BIA could nurture that. The township, too, has a role to play. In the last few years, Woolwich has completed a core review for Elmira, and has undertaken zoning changes to tweak the development options downtown. Much of the emphasis, not surprisingly, has been on the retail portion of downtown business. Such thinking dominates municipal planning schemes just about everywhere. Under pressure today from big-box retail, much as they were from the malls in previous generations, downtowns are having to cope with change. That doesn’t always sit well with core retailers, including some members of the BIA.
Even as it ponders its own future as an organization, the Elmira BIA continues to worry about the fate of the downtown – specifically, keeping in place a strong retail component.
The core is not without its problems: there is the struggle to maintain a favourable balance between retailers and services; there are some eyesores (the Steddick leaps immediately to mind); and there are the concerns over competition.
Attractive, unique and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, including trees, green spaces, flowers, benches and trails and amenities such as restaurants are what residents want from their downtowns. Elmira’s core review has recognized those demands. While council can create an appropriate environment, it’s up to property owners to make the changes demanded by the public.