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Making tough choices

It’s no surprise that Woolwich council this week pulled the plug on the short-lived Dollarama experiment.

The original decision from the previous week, made with just three of five councillors present, went against staff’s recommendation — and that’s just not the norm.

Moreover, the township has a long-standing policy of protecting the core area of Elmira. Admirable, if not always rational. Almost every municipality has a plan for its downtown, some more elaborate than others. In Kitchener, for instance, they’ve spent millions upon millions buying up real estate and assisting with development. The payoff has been small, but has picked up some steam in recent years.

Woolwich doesn’t have that kind of money to waste — no community does, even if some act as though taxpayers are a bottomless well — so its efforts have centered on planning controls: dictating what can go in the core and what can’t locate elsewhere in competition to the downtown. We’ve seen that in issues ranging from the Walmart-King/86 battle to ongoing efforts to develop the former Procast site.

In the case of the Sobeys land in the south end of town, the Dollarama isn’t the first hubbub. Putting a grocery store there in the first place was a controversial issue, as that’s not what the township had in mind for that area. Things got more complicated when the former grocery store-turned-industrial building just up the street became a grocery store again, No Frills. Planners were unhappier still when Sobeys closed the IGA store downtown, concentrating on the current Foodland location.

It’s still official policy to champion a food store downtown, though efforts have been fruitless.

The township is also wary of commercial ventures in the south end that it deems more suitable for the core. Here’s where the reality of current shopping preferences diverge from the ideal as seen by planners. As representatives from Sobeys argued, the Dollarama formula requires far more square footage than can be typically accommodated downtown. Customers also demand the convenience of free, easy and ample parking: drive up, pop in, drive off. Again, that’s just not in the cards downtown.

That conundrum extends well beyond dollar stores. Sobeys’ original plan for the site called for the expansion of the food store — a no-go — and new retail space to house, among other things, a restaurant and beer and wine stores. The project was scaled back dramatically following township objections.

The developer now finds itself in a position similar to what’s going on at the King/86 and stockyards areas near St. Jacobs: many of the would-be tenants are unable to locate there due to limitations built into the Official Plan and zoning. And few of those prospective businesses see the township’s preferred locations as viable. That’s what drives requests for changes and the corresponding resistance from Woolwich, as most recently demonstrated this week.

The township, of course, is not alone in that situation, just as it’s not the only municipality trying to protect and/or revive its downtown. Elmira is in much better shape than many cores, which gives councillors some wiggle room — there’s no sense of desperation — but there are bigger issues at play than a Dollarama store.

 

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