Downtown Barrie brand elusive

Does anyone remember the Patty Xenos report of five years ago, or the $350,000 the city spent to have it produced? What happened to its branding recommendations?

Devine Musings … by John Devine

There’s a cold wind blowing down Dunlop Street – a bit more bone chilling than the breeze that normally freezes the exposed extremities this time of year.
A city’s downtown core should be a vibrant source of exciting shopping, dining and entertainment choices – compelling people, resident and visitor alike, to come on down and spend a few … hundred.
It shouldn’t just be about commerce, although it most certainly is about that. Rather, it should be a day trip of sorts. Downtown should be a hot, sizzling place, even in the middle of January.
“Hey, let’s go downtown for a couple of hours and listen to that jazz band at the park,” or “let’s have lunch at that new café facing the bay – I hear the view is fantastic!”
The question, then, to be answered by downtown stakeholders is simple: What is it that will bring people, and business investment, downtown? The answers, as we have seen, are a lot more elusive. Or, maybe the answers aren’t all that difficult, and it’s the implementation that’s the problem.
Do you have any solutions? If so, the downtown Business Improvement Association (BIA) wants to hear from you. The association has initiated a process to engage invested stakeholders to come up with some answers to the vexing questions causing the downtown some real harm, including a spate of recent closings that gives the core a kind of ‘boarded’ look and feel. But they also want to hear from the community at large.
A survey has been posted to gather community response. Take the time to give your two cents worth. A healthy downtown is in everyone’s interest.
One downtown insider, Robin Munro, says that while the branding exercise is a good one for long-term sustainable growth, City Hall can move on certain solutions sooner rather than later.
Munro, the owner of Festivent World, which produces a number of downtown musical festivals, including the February Jazz and Blues and the Barrie Jazz and Blues Festival) would like to see Dunlop Street, between High and Mulcaster Streets, turned into one-way road to enhance pedestrian traffic.
“This would accommodate better pedestrian traffic flow by allowing for wider sidewalks that would let merchants, cafés and restaurants to provide outdoor retail and hospitality experiences and opportunities for entertainments.”
He’d like to see downtown beautification to function on a larger scale, on a seasonal basis, focusing on a strategy for downtown Barrie to become a “people place.”
The downtown BIA has engaged the services of urban ‘renewalist’ Roger Brooks to help create a brand for the city centre; he was in town recently addressing a BIA group that’s in the early stages of gathering information and ideas. His initial input was both honest and familiar.
Honest because he pretty much tells it like it is – familiar because we’ve seen this movie before. This isn’t the first ‘branding’ exercise to be launched to ‘save’ the downtown. Does anyone remember the Patty Xenos report of five years ago, or the $350,000 the city spent to have it produced?

The report by the Montreal-based commercial master planner called for the development of a downtown brand through the growth of five distinct districts: a culture node on Mulcaster, centred by the McLaren Art Centre; an entertainment district on Dunlop Street West; the creation of a downtown façade facing the bay, along with a mews featuring cafes and shops; a piazza of sorts to spur public use of Memorial Square, and a business zone on Collier Street.
A couple of banks have relocated to Collier, and a theatre is being built on the southwest corner of Dunlop and Bayfield. But chatter about a downtown theatre predates the 2006 report, and while the banks on Collier do give the area a ‘business’ feel, the street can hardly be called a financial district.
Five years on and its hard to see any progress on the report’s suggestions, or on the oft-discussed but never-realized downtown hotel and convention/conference centre, talk of which dates back as far as the 80s.
Brooks arrived in Barrie with some very good ideas, strategies that have worked elsewhere and should work here, if they ever see the light of day.
Of particular note were his suggestions for bringing people downtown by branding the core as a place to be. They included an amphitheatre at the vacant lot on the northeast corner of the Five Points intersection – the one that has been empty since Sam The Record Man (remember those guys?) burned down years ago.
This kind of usage would have a natural connection with the theatre being built across the road.
Other ideas were, as said, familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less valid. Upping metred parking from two hours to four is a no-brainer, and would allow shoppers to experience downtown without having to worry about the parking ticket that might be tucked under the windshield wiper.
I’d go further: free parking from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and metred parking from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Switch the ‘tab’ to the bar crowd which will pay to park, regardless of the costs.
He was also critical of the ‘wall’ of adjoining stores that cuts off shoppers from a natural asset, the bay, and advocated for an enhanced public use of Memorial Square, and a downtown hotel with a conference centre.
Not much can be done about the wall of stores, but the city can be a lot more proactive in creating a streetscape facing the bay.
Other issues raised by Brooks include store hours and shopping choices, too early and not enough, and the prevalence of drinking establishments downtown. It’s not the number of bars, he suggested, that’s the problem, but the lack of balance caused by the absence of other choices.
Once the survey is completed a Brand Development Committee will decide on a focus; a Brand Leadership Team will then seek community partners to continue the process.
Munro says that tax relief should also be part of the mix to rescue the downtown.
“In order to support the efforts of entrepreneurs wishing to locate their businesses in the downtown, the City of Barrie should undertake to return to these investors a percentage of the property taxes – as a monthly rebate – levied against the landholders whose property they are establishing their businesses within.
“This does not affect the landholders, it only affects the revenue stream coming from the downtown core. The City can be characterized as a co-investor in the ultimate success in downtown Barrie. This would have an immediate impact on present tenants, and it would be a wonderful incentive for future retailers.
“Obviously, these ideas would require special dispensations and amendments to bylaws, statutes and municipal policy. As an example, the City would forgo any license fees normally levied for outdoor cafés or dining.”
Other solid ideas on the table include moving the transit terminal out of downtown – a favourite of Mayor Jeff Lehman – and the creation of a farmer’s market there, presumably on a grander scale than the one that gathers during the summer on Saturdays at City Hall.
And personally, I think the city missed a great opportunity to bring people downtown by building a fire station on the site of the old Barrie Arena, rather than creating an arena that would have attracted tournaments, and hundreds of people downtown – especially if they had a hotel to accommodate them.
In the end, any package to brand downtown should include immediate fixes, like parking and taxes, and long-term concepts to bring people downtown.

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