A new approach to tackle issues like downtown revitalization

Getting more people involved is just the start of community-building efforts. We also need better ideas, the people to enact them and governments that embrace change … or get out of its way.

How much of that will occur in Woolwich remains to be seen, but people seem charged-up by Doug Griffith’s stop in Elmira last week for a series of public events organized by Woolwich Healthy Communities.

The age-old lament that “somebody should do something” was the starting point of his discussions, prompted by an aging and diminishing pool of volunteers who are the straws that stir the drink when it comes to community groups, service clubs and the like.

Along with ways to encourage more volunteers and great involvement by residents in community-building activities, the Somebody Should Do Something event also shined a light on issues such as downtown redevelopment and local governments unresponsive to shifting demographic changes.

Griffiths, the Calgary-based author of ‘13 Ways to Kill Your Community,’ runs a consultancy specializing in helping communities prosper. His presentations saw him serving as part-pragmatist, part-motivator and part-prophet in addressing audiences in Elmira over a couple of days.

At the very least, he provided plenty of fodder for thought.

Groups such as Woolwich Healthy Communities right through to service clubs such as the Lions, Kiwanis and Optimists have noted declining participation rates for years. Many longstanding events and activities have gone by the wayside due to volunteers aging out or simply growing too busy elsewhere in their lives to keep going. The same demographic shifts that see fewer volunteers for sports and recreational activities also see people taking up new pastimes and finding other outlets for their time.

To illustrate such changes, Griffiths points to a municipality that was contemplating spending a bundle on building a new curling facility even though participation had fallen off dramatically. Maybe, he suggested, the community should look at what people there actually do with their recreational time and money.

Such institutional thinking is anathema to adapting in a rapidly-changing environment – and “anti-change communities die,” he noted.

Likewise, he discussed the central planning behind transit schemes such as the LRT, which today ignore shifting technology and the key factors in transportation choices – price, convenience, speed – in favour of doing things the same way, whether 20th century or, in the case of trains, 19th century “solutions” are being offered.

Much of the discussion focussed on development, economic or otherwise, in and around downtown cores. In this case, Elmira’s.

Again, his examples of successful adaptation and transition are at odds with what we are seeing going on here.

Elmira has been the subject of a few market studies and other exercises designed to generate more interest and attract more people to the core. Many of the suggestions, particularly around the range of offerings and hours of operation, haven’t been widely adopted. More recently, the Elmira Business Improvement Area (BIA) has undertaking a community improvement plan, with a specific focus on improving the aesthetics of a downtown definitely in need of curb appeal … including the curbs themselves.

Larger issues, the ones that continue to plague downtown Elmira (and, to be fair, downtowns everywhere), are also on the radar, though many would take the kind of money that no one has seen fit to invest in the properties there.

That said, the kind of façade- improvement program envisioned by the BIA would 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 cafés to 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 being built in the town 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. Over the 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.

Certainly, the core is not without its problems: there is the struggle to maintain a favourable balance between retailers and services; there are some eyesores; and there are the concerns over competition.

Attractive, 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.

Hopefully some of those present for Griffiths’ presentations are the kind who’ll take his suggestions to heart, embracing the change that’s coming whether or not we care to admit it.

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