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Woolwich council moves to develop a vision for downtown Elmira

Intending to develop a planning framework that will encourage businesses to invest in the Elmira core, Woolwich will spend $40,000 to $50,000 to have a consultant come up with a new concept for the downtown.

The process will look at the likes of land uses, expanding the core area, zoning changes to foster certain types of businesses and the ideal mix of offerings – retail, office and residential – to make the location more attractive to investors.

The review was prompted by a few of land-acquisition proposals and the recent adoption by the Elmira BIA of a community improvement plan, director of planning services Mark Pomponi explained at a council meeting Tuesday night.

Councillors welcomed the idea, quickly passing a resolution to issue a request for proposal for firms interested in carrying out the review.

“It’s about looking at opportunities,” said Pomponi of the process in an earlier interview.

The consultant’s report would create a vision for the downtown that could provide council with some direction, he added.

Ideally, he noted, the core would see a good mix of uses, including a revitalized retail component and the likes of restaurants and other entertainment options to counter a problem many downtown areas face: “5 o’clock flight” that sees the core empty when the workday is done.

One key way of avoiding that is having more people living in or near the area.

“Residential is a great use that is supportive of core services, commercial uses,” he said.

Krista McBay, the owner of Elmira Home Hardware, would certainly concur, as she has a longstanding proposal to develop an apartment building on land adjacent to her store at Church and Maple streets. Hers is one of the land-swap proposals still outstanding, as she owns property behind the township hall, and the municipality uses parking on land behind her store.

McBay is still waiting for action from the township, however, with the process on hold now pending the consultant’s report.

“I just want this to happen,” she said in an interview, noting she sees the potential of more business for the downtown core courtesy of increased residential development.

A good mix of retail and services such as healthcare would make the downtown more desirable, especially for older residents who’s like to live in or near the core. She notes she has a waiting list of some 35 people who’ve expressed interest in her proposal for an apartment building.

“We could see more of a walking community, with something that brings people here,” she said of the downtown.

That’s a vision shared by Jon Clay, chair of the Elmira Business Improvement Area (BIA).

The group was the impetus behind a new community improvement plan (CIP) that aims to improve the appearance of the downtown through programs such as façade improvements and streetscaping initiatives. Having a CIP allows the group to seek grants in support of those goals, with the BIA last week approaching the township for $10,000 to help jumpstart to façade program.

“Hopefully the township’s on board with support of that,” he said.

 “The only way to do this right was to have a CIP,” he said of the process, noting the group is eager to work with the township to create “a united front” in improving the downtown.

The BIA will be part of the public consultation process, with Clay noting planning issues such as the mix of retail versus office space as something that needs professional guidance. The group will be supportive of all efforts to make the core more attractive to those who might look to set up shop there.

“We’ve got to look at the overall picture downtown. Obviously it would be great to have more retail downtown … and more foot traffic,” said Clay.

With council approval this week, the township will move on the tendering process to hire a consultant, with Pomponi suggesting a report would come back three or four months after the winning bid is chosen.

Coun. Patrick Merlihan stressed that the consultation of stakeholders should include the wider community that uses services downtown, with his Ward 1 colleague Coun. Scott McMillan welcoming the proposal, pointing to the need for a “well-thought-out plan.”

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