Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Downtowns - Part Two

Last spring I wrote of the changing face of both Niagara Falls' and St. Catharines' downtowns, as they both embarked on a road to reinvent themselves for a new generation. In both cases, it was the arts and culture sector to provide the inspiration if not the nuts and bolts of each core's rejuvenation. Here we are, almost a year later, and I thought it was time to examine the two situations once again.

In St. Catharines, we have government infrastructure money flowing into the downtown core to build a new parking garage on Carlisle, opposite the bus terminal. That project is now underway with the tearing down of the crumbling old structure. We now have two-way traffic in much of the downtown core, and the wine route is set to come right through the downtown in the near future. In anticipation of the future performing arts centre in tandem with the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University, many are seeing the future of downtown St. Catharines enjoying a renaissance in the near future. Some new restaurants and shops have opened up, while others, most notably Elliott & Co. have prepared to close their doors, unable or unwilling to wait for the major work to be completed downtown.

It is never easy bringing a major project like the performing arts centre and school of fine & performing arts to fruition, and that has especially been the case lately. While the city-owned performing arts centre received funding last summer from all three levels of government: federal, provincial and municipal, thereby almost assuring the project would be going ahead, there has been a significant snag that has developed on the school of fine & performing arts end. Brock University has not recieved their funding committment from the provincial government yet, and the project cannot go on without it. If the school section doesn't materialize, the performing arts centre proposal could go the same route, leaving exasperated city residents to wonder what if...and what went wrong.

Granted, we have to remain positive about this whole thing, and remain confident the provincial government will see their way clear to provide the anticipated funding needed to bring the whole complex beyond the planning stage and on to the building stage. But the unexpected turn of events earlier this year, when Brock President Jack Lightstone said the project is on hold for the time being until funding comes through, sent a chill through those of us who can almost taste the sweet success brought about by the funding announcements of last summer. I think it will happen, and not be delayed all that much in the long run. But there is concern the delay in funding could delay the whole project, and that would be really unfortunate. Let's continue to remain posititive, shall we? And that includes both sides of the performing/school arts centre. We need both to help inject new life in our downtown core, and I have every confidence this is only a temporary delay the parties will overcome sooner rather than later.

Now, on to Niagara Falls' much maligned Queen Street, which for many years has resembled a dishevelled matron on her last legs, just gasping for air. In the last couple of years, the Historic Niagara group headed by Mordechai Grun has taken it upon themselves to almost single-handedly revitalize the Niagara Falls downtown core. The results are nothing short of spectacular. Many new shops, cafes and the like line both sides of Queen Street, with only a handful of empty storefronts left to contend with; a far cry from a few years ago when walking downtown was more than a little depressing with all the empty storefronts staring you in the face. But now, Grun and company have worked out lease arrangements with a lot of creative and artistic types, along with those with a strong business background who can make things work downtown. Just last evening we were down at one of our favourite places to dine in Niagara Falls now: Paris Crepes, which recently won an award for their spectacular new restaurant design. On a Saturday night in January, the place was hopping, even by the time we left about 8:30. Granted, many, like us, were taking advantage of Paris Crepes' January 50% off special offer, but still, it was encouraging to see so many people out and enjoying their time in downtown Niagara Falls. When you sit in the restaurant and look out to Queen Street, you almost feel like you are in Paris! And that is just one of several new restaurants and cafes that have opening up in the last little while. The restaurant business is a notoriously difficult business to make successful, but so far, so good.

The only rumblings of discontent recently surrounds the possible departure of Gypsy Theatre from their home at the lavishly refurbished Queen Street theatre, a former movie house long since abandoned before Grun dumped a significant amount of his own money into it to make things work. The unfortunate thing for Gypsy Theatre is that after only one season in downtown Niagara Falls, they are having trouble attracting large enough crowds to fill the seats and make the theatre a viable operation. Time will tell on this one, and I hope they manage to work out an arrangement that keeps them at the downtown theatre, as live theatre is always the heartbeat of any downtown, I find.

So, two downtowns, and different yet similar paths to bring them back to life. In both cases, there have been setbacks, but overall, the progress is and will continue to be significant. Let's keep our fingers crossed for both downtowns. Niagara Falls and St. Catharines have much to lose and everything to gain from the success of both ventures. Good luck!

January 31st, 2010.

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