“Wouldn’t you rather see a picture of a fabulous downtown park or something?” said Miller, vice-president of education and research at the Canadian Urban Institute. “It’s time to change the postcard.”
A new study conducted by the institute focuses its lens on the downtowns of the North’s five major cities — Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, Timmins and North Bay — to evaluate how those downtowns are performing.
Representatives of those cities gathered in Sudbury recently to talk about the results and how they can inform planning.
While there is always room for improvement, there have been some gains, Miller said.
Sudbury’s School of Architecture is “one of the great success stories,” he said, and the planning, implementation, and construction of the school is an example of leadership working collectively to bring about change.
Other projects are ongoing. Following the approval of its 10-year downtown revitalization plan in 2012, the city is working on the development of the Elgin Street Greenway, while private developers continue to invest in new dining, retail and residential options. Downtown Sudbury, the city’s business improvement area (BIA), recently completed a rebranding exercise to raise the visibility of the downtown.
Jason Ferrigan, a planner with the City of Greater Sudbury, said participation in the study presents a “landmark opportunity” to measure how well Sudbury’s downtown fares in relation to those in other Northern and Ontario communities.
“Over the last six years, we’ve been working really hard with our partners to create a new vision plan and action strategy for downtown Sudbury that looks ahead 30 years into the future and says, ‘Downtown is a really vibrant, active, green, well-connected place,’” Ferrigan said. “And (the study) was a great process that certainly broadened the conversation.”
Ferrigan said the city would do an analysis every two years to ensure it remained on track.
Maureen Luoma, executive director of Downtown Sudbury, said anecdotes about successful projects are great to hear, but it’s the data — statistics and numbers like those provided through this study — that will help get projects moving forward.
“It gives us the ammunition council needs when we go to council and show why we need to partner together,” she said.
The institute found that Sudbury and its neighbours share similar challenges: getting the appropriate share of investment relative to the wider city, the impact of amalgamation, the changing of public policy, concerns about livability, perceptions of safety, capturing their share of retail dollars, and dealing with suburban sprawl.
In Northern Ontario, the downtowns make up a small proportion of the municipalities. But the amount of tax revenue they generate indicates that investment there provides good value, Miller said.
“Downtown investments do benefit the wider city,” he said. “It’s a good return on investment; it helps reinforce the city’s overall competitive position and it influences the economic prosperity and culture.”
The Canadian Urban Institute study is part of a larger project involving 17 additional downtowns in cities across the province.
It’s all part of a move towards developing a clearer, more defined vision for the province’s downtowns, Miller said, adding that partnerships and support from all levels of government will be integral to success.