A plan to revitalize downtown Barrie comes with financial incentives designed to encourage the private sector to buy into the renewed city core.
City by the bay hopes to ride The Next Wave
BY ROBIN MACLENN
A plan to revitalize downtown Barrie comes with financial incentives designed to encourage the private sector to buy into the renewed city core. And if the incentives attract a hotel convention centre to the city’s treasured waterfront, then the ultimate prize would have been won.
“The greatest financial incentives are definitely for a hotel conference centre,” said Jim Taylor, Barrie’s director of planning. “They include no development charges in the downtown, no building permit fee . . . and there would be no taxes owed for the first four years.
“We have done everything we can to set the stage for such a development.”
Financial and planning incentives are also available for landowners who are prepared to undertake renovations or redevelopment of an existing building or the construction of a new building on vacant land located in the planning area.
The Next Wave, approved by City Council over the summer, involves much more than new buildings and improved storefronts, however. There are also plans to connect the Kempenfelt Bay waterfront and its parklands to the downtown business area.
“One of the goals of this plan is to improve the linkages between the waterfront and the downtown,” Taylor explained. “If you were standing in a redesigned Memorial Square and you were asked, ‘Are you in the downtown or are you in a waterfront park?’ we want the answer to be ‘Yes, I am.’”
Although the concept was approved less than three months ago, improvements are already happening.
“Have you seen the Five Points?” asked Taylor. “There have been some major changes there. It doesn’t look at all like it used to.”
Shrubs and interlocking brick have replaced the picnic tables, hot dog stand, chip wagon and gravel that had become a familiar eye sore at the intersection where Bayfield and Dunlop Streets come together. Throughout the downtown park benches have disappeared and a nuisance bylaw was implemented to discourage loitering.
The speed of change signifies council’s commitment to the vision, Taylor said.
“It has been structured in such a way to have immediate changes and a long-term vision for the city. Alot has happened in a relatively short time, but this is a plan that is looking from the current day to the next 25 or more years.”
One of the key elements of the plan, the construction of a multi-tiered parking garage and mixed-use residential or commercial development on Collier Street, is close to reality. Several proposals are currently under review and city staff expects an announcement in the next few weeks. The completed project will increase the number of downtown parking spaces from 100 to at least 300, and it will add a commercial or residential component to the site, located across from city hall.
“When construction begins, it will demonstrate that the city is committed to the revitalization,” Taylor said.
Another significant element of the plan has been approved, despite loud objections from local residents who will be affected.
Lakeshore Drive will be moved to allow the city to enlarge and enhance its waterfront park and to improve traffic access to the downtown.
At the same time, Toronto Street, a residential street leading out of the downtown core, will be linked to Lakeshore Drive, creating a significant property at the head of Kempenfelt Bay that is earmarked for a signature public building within a waterfront park.
“This building should be at a scale and of a design to establish it as one of the distinguishing landmarks on the Barrie skyline,” Taylor said. “The realignment of Lakeshore Drive will also serve to minimize conflicts between vehicular traffic and pedestrians using the park.”
The Next Wave has been embraced by city council as the answer to the perplexing question of how to attract businesses and people to downtown Barrie.
“This is not just a plan that will sit on a shelf,” said Mayor Rob Hamilton. “We have also come up with an action plan and we have dedicated people to make it happen.”
An alarming number of empty storefronts and vacant lots in the downtown, along with dwindling customers, has made for tough times in recent years.
Those who live, work and shop downtown Barrie are excited by the possibilities.
Ganesh Budrum, store manager at Angie’s Outdoor, right near Memorial Square, says something has to happen.
“It’s about time. It’s been stagnant and deteriorating,” he said of the downtown. “People won’t come down here.
“Having more people here is the key thing. There are not enough people down here to sustain it.”
Most business owners agree that any plan to improve downtown Barrie is a good one.
“I can’t wait for it to happen. The sooner the better,” said Sharyn Renaud of The Blue Bottle By The Sea on Dunlop Street East, near Mulcaster Street.
Bob Lehman of Meridian Planning Consultants has expressed skepticism about The Next Wave, recalling similar plans released but not fully implemented in 1972, 1988 and 1996.
Lehman identified three properties— the Collier Street parking lot, the old post office on the same street, and the land between Dunlop Street East and Heritage Park—that need attention.
The downtown needs that investment from city hall to interest the private sector, he said, and to show its commitment.
The latest plan came from action teams formed in the spring to focus on two main areas of interest in the downtown. One works on the ‘bricks and mortar’ front, to encourage and attract a variety of development opportunities to the downtown.
A team headed by prominent local citizen Jack Garner, is working to improve the safety, security and cleanliness of downtown Barrie.
While the first wave of The Next Wave has already hit the shore, Taylor said the success of such a lofty plan relies on implementing the recommendations and monitoring the impact. He likened the project to the Centennial Beach development that transformed Barrie’s waterfront in 1967.
“At that time the water of Kempenfelt Bay almost lapped up on the rail bed land,” he said, “and someone stood on the shore and said: ‘This could be much more than just a rail bed.’”
The result was Centennial Beach and Park, an area visited by thousands of tourists each year.
“They got it right back then, and we are hoping that we’ve got it right today.”