Great cities have great downtowns! A great downtown draws people in, it inspires, energizes and tells the story of the people who inhabit it.
There has been an awful lot of chatter about whether it’s appropriate for me to be a downtown booster; it is and frankly, I can’t imagine a Brandon mayor who wasn’t a downtown booster.
Why is a downtown revitalization needed in Brandon?
Research shows that a healthy, vibrant downtown boosts the economic health and quality of life of the whole community. It creates jobs, incubates small businesses, reduces sprawl, protects property values and increases the community’s options for goods and services. A healthy downtown is a symbol of community pride and history.
What are some of the initiatives currently underway in our downtown?
• Carving out a distinct economic role — Downtown should be a centre of arts, culture, creativity, innovation and knowledge and serve as an incubator for artists and entrepreneurs.
Other communities have found success in developing their downtowns into vibrant centres of arts and entertainment. Fargo, N.D., has rebuilt its downtown with a focus on restaurants and entertainment. Other cities, using culture as a catalyst for their downtown renewal, see public art installations, live performances, film theatre, dining and the development of creative events as critical to adding vibrancy.
Brandon has a good start on creating a critical mass of entertainment and leisure opportunities in our downtown. We also have a list of summer special events to bring folks downtown and the Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts could be a competitive advantage in a food-focused plan.
Along Princess Avenue, there is the YMCA, Princess Park with Olivier’s Bistro Catering and BBQ, and the new Kristopher Campbell Memorial Skateboard Plaza. Komfort Kitchen is expanding both its footprint and its hours.
Along Rosser Avenue, we have more pubs, bars and great restaurants. Sandwiched between the Brandon School of Dance and Steppin’ Time Dance Studio is the former Strand Theatre with its potential as a performance venue.
Princess Park is alive with music several nights of the week and a popular venue for community groups’ activities on weekends. Cruise Nights have drawn large crowds of vintage car enthusiasts. Bookstores, the public library, independent art galleries as well as the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba are part of the cultural foundation of Brandon.
This culture-entertainment cluster is established, we just need to build on it and ensure that it thrives and grows.
The secondary plan for Brandon’s downtown includes a hospitality entertainment district with specific zoning requirements centred on Ninth and 10th streets that will facilitate the growth of the HED.
• Encouraging more people to live and work downtown — A complete, livable community, downtown should be a neighbourhood where people live, meet, stroll, shop, congregate, learn and play.
To make downtown Brandon an attractive, safe, interesting place to live and work, we must respect and celebrate downtown Brandon’s unique heritage. The original Firehall No. 1 and its fate will be as important to this generation of Brandon downtown supporters as the Prince Eddy was in years gone by. Will it suffer the same inglorious fate?
Residential opportunities downtown must be diverse and include housing at affordable as well as market rates. The city is an active partner, promoting the quality of life of downtown living, as well as looking for opportunities to assist residents.
The Tax Increment Financing program is part of the marketing strategy for the 93-unit McKenzie Towers on Ninth Street, where taxes are frozen at pre-development rates for 10 years to help mitigate the risk of these early adopters for downtown living.
Paragon Lofts across the street is aggressively marketing units as well. Imagine what it will mean to downtown to have 200-plus people living on Ninth Street. The secondary plan has medium density housing identified for several areas and there is a green space plan to compliment residential development.
And finally, development must reflect downtown’s unique characteristics, which means establishing a new system for planning approvals, re-evaluating property tax principles and zoning.
I am very optimistic that people in Brandon have the ideas and the energy to turn our downtown around. A languishing downtown is common to many communities and is a situation that is not unique to Brandon. And that means that there are lots of ideas and energy going into this topic to be inspired by.
The consistent, key feature in successful downtown redevelopments has been patience. A relentless effort, a well-designed strategy and energy from many directions are also integral to the revitalization that will make downtown Brandon distinct and thriving.
» Shari Decter Hirst is Brandon’s mayor. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 30, 2012