Downtowns across North America have changed radically since Petula Clark’s 1964 classic “Downtown” told us it was the place to go to “forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”
Once the heart beat of every community, downtowns have been hollowed out since the 1970s, cast aside first in favour of mall culture, then the big box shopping experience and finally the advent of online convenience.
Greater Sudbury has already or is about to lose three touchstones of her downtown: the Black Cat convenience store, Records On Wheels and Joe Lesar Men’s Wear. As a fellow member of the city’s business community, we feel for the owners — and customers — of those stores.
Individually, the reasons those businesses are closing vary, but there is one cause they all share — they are victims of an evolving landscape that has altered the retail environment and fundamentally changed Canada’s downtown cores.
But does this mean downtown Sudbury is some kind of blackhole? A place fit only to procure illicit entertainment or become a victim of crime? There seems to be a perception, particularly in outlying areas of the city, that that is the case for all of downtown.
Like any major Canadian city — and Greater Sudbury can certainly count itself among them — those who seek and those who sell material appealing to people’s baser instincts can be found there, that goes without saying. But we shouldn’t let that common reality dictate our perceptions of a vibrant and important neighbourhood in our community.
Yes, the area around the Sudbury Transit depot still makes people uncomfortable, but there are also respectable office buildings, nice hotels, the imposing edifice of Tom Davies Square rising into view as one crosses the Bridge of Nations.
There’s the School of Architecture, Market Square and a new student residence.
Restaurants of every style, price range and description abound. There’s art and theatre and music downtown. The Grand has re-opened, as has a new nightclub in Fuse.
There’s an urban coolness to picking up some fresh food at Eat Local Sudbury or the Market, then stopping by Le Fromagerie Elgin for a drink and a bite, and after maybe swinging by Le Petit Gateau or Old Rock for a sweet and a cup of java.
There might be few major retailers to speak of, but there is a host of unique shops owned by local entrepreneurs offering everything from high-end fashion to outdoor apparel to delicious candy.
Businesses like Bureau, 50 Carleton and Fuel Multimedia demonstrate a downtown that has evolved into a location to purchase services as well as goods.
Downtowns may not be the shopping centres they once were, but every community is judged, in part, on its core, which means downtowns are not as irrelevant as some would have us believe.
Which brings us to the Downtown Master Plan. Broad in scope — and perhaps pie-in-the-sky imaginative in some aspects — the plan paints an exciting picture of a downtown Sudbury that could be.
What it lacks is the political will and cohesiveness of vision to make it a reality.
Yes, it would be expensive, but with the drive and a city council focused outwardly on the city (instead of inwardly on its own problems), the money could be found. Determination breeds capital.
Challenge your perception of downtown Sudbury. There’s a new energy brewing.
Visit downtown. Make it a destination one Saturday. You may be surprised what you find.
Everything’s waiting for you.