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Thursday, September 19, 2019

In the end, Woolwich has little say over what happens in the downtown core

Woolwich is preparing for a legal battle over refusing a developer’s plans for retail expansion at the south end of Elmira.

The additional space and types of retail aren’t in keeping with the township’s vision for the area. In a nutshell, the proposal doesn’t jibe with the goal of protecting downtown Elmira.

The question is, why? No, not why it doesn’t jibe, but why is the township fixated on the core?

It’s a familiar issue in the township, having been front and center during the Walmart debate over the King/86 development near St. Jacobs and again a number of times during the expansion and would-be expansion of grocery stores in Elmira.

Woolwich is not alone in that regard. It’s a dilemma in communities all over the country, where downtowns have taken a beating.

The Skyline Retail Real Estate Holdings at the Foodland plaza will not be the knockout punch for downtown Elmira. That said, it will have an impact on the core, just as the growth of shopping malls and, later, big box developments undoubtedly had an impact on cities everywhere – you need look no further than our neighbours, Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo.

The reality, however, is that we want something different in our shopping habits. Malls, with dozens or hundreds of stores under one roof and plenty of parking, offer decided advantages, not the least of which is shelter from the weather. And, in recent years, the superstore phenomenon has caught fire. You can bet that plenty of people from Elmira, not to mention the rest of Woolwich and Wellesley townships, do their shopping at those facilities in the aforementioned cities.

Space considerations alone preclude those kinds of shopping experiences from being offered in downtown cores – in Elmira’s case, it’s easy to look around and see that the retail outlets north of Conestoga Mall, for instance, would find no home there. Yet most of us are voting with our dollars to shop at those other spots.

By bringing some of that flavour to Elmira’s south end – let’s be clear, we’re in no imminent danger of recreating Hespeler Road – there is an opportunity to keep some of that trade in this community. Township planners aren’t convinced.

It’s easy to see why they’re concerned. Elmira hasn’t suffered the mass vacancies and resultant decay seen in other communities – you don’t have to go far to see examples – but it isn’t the robust, going concern officials would like to see. Too much storefront office space, not enough retail or services that draw people in.

The downtown could also use some sprucing up, the impetus for a bid by the Business Improvement Area (BIA) to boost its budget by increasing rates.

A bypass route that would take through traffic, particularly trucks, off of Arthur Street and through, say, an industrial area on the east side of town would do wonders.

Such changes are obvious to Laurie Ward-Surey, who, as owner of E’s Into Wellness studio, lives and works downtown.

From little things such as more greenery and improved garbage collection right through to a bypass route, there are a host of ways to make the downtown more welcoming, she says.

At her Arthur Street location for more than a decade, she saw a few changes downtown, most of them not for the better.

“The traffic is getting worse. Trucks and tandem trucks … they’re just speeding through the downtown,” says Ward-Surey, in favour of a bypass route.

In the meantime, she’d like to see new ventures in the core reflecting the influx of residents moving into the town’s new subdivisions.

“It would be nice if we could tap into that. We don’t need more offices downtown,” she says, noting stores open and then close in short order, the space often turned into offices.

“It does become frustrating.”

She’s not alone in that sentiment, as the transition is not lost on Woolwich planners.

A number of studies have mapped out some ideal changes, but the township isn’t in the business of acquiring real estate or helping to launch new ventures, unlike some larger municipalities (often with mixed or poor results).

Ideally, there 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 cafés to play up the downtown’s advantages in the better weather.

The township and its BIA have recognized an opportunity presented by a growing Elmira. Many of the new homes – current and future – are within walking distance of the core; the goal now is to give them a reason to walk, and stop, downtown.

Over the years, Woolwich has completed a few core reviews 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.

Attractive, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, including trees, green spaces, flowers, benches and trails and amenities such as restaurants are what residents want from their downtowns. Studies have highlighted those demands. But while the township can favour such things, and even promote them, it’s in no position to make the changes demanded by the public. That being the case, even attempts to block development elsewhere are going to do nothing to funnel businesses into the core.

Steve Kannon
Steve Kannonhttps://www.observerxtra.com
A community newspaper journalist for more than two decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

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