I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago with the Downtown Business Improvement District people. I came home from the meeting thinking that there are a few phrases that are repeated at every meeting, and I'd be quite happy if these could be avoided in the future, because the constant repetition isn't moving us forward, or helping find solutions.
The first is that downtown is the heart of the city. That may have been true once, but it isn't any more. To me, the heart of a community is a place where most people go, and I know that there are many people who rarely go downtown, and more who go downtown only because they work there. You can get by very well without setting foot on Central Avenue north of Fifteenth Street - most shopping and banking is now located elsewhere. Thirty years ago Central Avenue had three grocery stores and five banks. Today there is one bank, and no grocery stores. It doesn't mean that downtown can't thrive - you don't have to be the heart of a city to still be pretty nice.
Another thing that is often said is that we need to have some kind of attraction downtown that will cause people coming from Saskatoon and heading to the lakes to take a detour. In fact, this idea is often refined to specify that we need to have some kind of water-type attraction. I'm not sure that this will ever work, for a couple of reasons. When we were at FCM in Niagara Falls last year, it was quite clear that one of the most amazing water attractions in the world wasn't enough to give that town a thriving downtown. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Fallsview area of town was full of people, but the downtown had the same problems that most small town downtowns have - empty storefronts, vacant lots, and not many people.
As for getting people heading to the lakes to stop - they do. I see recreational vehicles and boats in tow in the Safeway parking lot every Friday morning in the summer. I see people fueling their vehicles at several gas stations along Second Avenue West. People stop for their needs, but their objective is getting to the lake as quickly as possible - they're not interested in detours. I wish that we would focus more on getting the people who live here to come downtown - despite the oft-repeated misconception that there's no sense in trying to do anything in the summer, since everybody goes to the lakes. I'm one that doesn't, and I think that we should cultivate opportunities for the residents that don't have the wherewithal or desire to go elsewhere in the summer. There's a potential market with a greater chance of success.
And finally, I think that we look at downtown through too narrow a lens. It's often said that we need more people living downtown, and those who say that are looking just at Central Avenue. I prefer to think of downtown as including the surrounding neighbourhoods - to Sixth Avenue on the east and Second Avenue on the west. If we broaden our lens to include this larger area, all of a sudden we see that there are a lot of people who live downtown. Instead of focusing improvements on Central Avenue, how much more attractive would these neighbourhoods be if we started improving their amenities - paving streets, fixing sidewalks, adding more green space. Face it - new light standards on Central Avenue don't make a bit of difference to the people that we want to head there instead of somewhere else.
But if we look at making this larger area more attractive, you will get more people living here, and people living closer to downtown businesses will be more likely to patronize those businesses. More people being active and visible in an area will result in the area becoming more attractive to others, and feeling safer when they're there.
Improvement to the downtown area isn't going to happen by trying to go backwards, and bringing back all of the businesses that used to be there. It isn't going to happen by finding a single magic bullet that will suddenly bring hordes of people to the downtown, who will then be so inspired that they will spend all their money there, and change their vacation plans. But if we make the downtown a more attractive place for the people who live there, the changes that we're looking for will happen incrementally.
There are, of course, no guarantees. We also need to look at taking more risks, trying new things. Any real change requires risk, of course. The irony is that we're far more prone to trying to bring back ideas that worked in the past, even though all the evidence shows that the risk of failure from that sort of approach is higher than trying new things.
So I'm proposing to follow the advice Don Draper gave on Mad Men - if you don't like what people are saying, change the conversation. Let's change the way we talk about improving the downtown, and maybe we'll start to see the first small signs of change.
"Tradition is a guide, and not a jailer." - W. Somerset Maugham