Woolwich & Wellesley Township's Local Community Newspaper | Elmira, Ontario, Canada
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Downtown upgrades
a long-term undertaking

The dead of winter doesn’t perhaps conjure up images of milling about in the downtown cores of Elmira or St. Jacobs, but those areas were top of mind as Woolwich council this week approved budgets for the BIAs in both those communities.

The organizations, which draw funds from a special levy on businesses within their respective cores, focus on beautification efforts, marketing and events to draw people in.

St. Jacobs is already a well-known tourist destination, though the pandemic and earlier trends – from demographics to border issues – have not been helpful. Elmira has long struggled with its identity, with former attempts at generating tourist traffic ultimately giving way to a more pragmatic approach.

With their relatively small budgets, neither community’s BIA can have an immediate and dramatic impact. Likewise, the township is in no position to lead downtown revitalization efforts. Improvements will have to be incremental. That starts with 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, a much bigger issue in Elmira.

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. While council can create an appropriate environment, it’s up to property owners to make the changes demanded by the public.

The township and BIA have plans for some changes, particularly under a new community improvement plan (CIP), which introduces a host of new financial incentives designed to open up a raft of new funding for businesses in the core looking to make material improvements to their buildings.

Potentially hundreds or thousands of dollars will be on offer for Elmira’s downtown businesses interested in renovating and upgrading their storefronts, either through grants or loans for work such as façade improvements, sign replacements and public art installations. Such issues have been broached by the BIA of late, and are reflected in this year’s budget.

It’s a worthy initiative, but we’ll have to see what comes of it. As it stands, it makes little sense for an individual property owner to act alone, as it will take a coordinated effort to make any substantive change to the look of the downtown core. That’s a project that will include major overhauls of some not particularly attractive buildings, and a move away from a simple strip along Arthur Street, even if a bypass route is built in any useful timeframe. The township has taken steps to in theory extend the core to the likes of Memorial Avenue, but there’s been little rush to capitalize on that concept.

It’s a slow process, but one now underway. Where it goes bears watching.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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