Sunday, May 1, 2016

Things are looking up in downtown St. Catharines!

As I was preparing to write my weekend blog post, a caught a tweet from Mayor Walter Sendzik that says the City of St. Catharines is celebrating 140 years today.  Oh the town was around long before that, of course, but the city was incorporated today in 1876.

Well, Mr. Mayor, I share your optimism our great city has a bright future ahead of it, and here's why.

Just this week, for instance, the Niagara Ice Dogs advanced to the OHL Finals against the dreaded London Knights at the Meridian Centre Tuesday night, as they swept the Barrie Colts in four games straight.

A capacity crowd at the Meridian Centre saluted their red & white-shirted heroes as they advanced to the Big Round, confident and raring to go.  The exuberant fans certainly celebrated in downtown St. Catharines throughout the playoffs, bringing some welcome business to the many eateries catering to the downtown crowd these days.

That certainly will continue into the next round, with the first home game still a week away. Incidentally, all the tickets available to the public that went on sale Friday were snapped up in 17 minutes flat.  How's that for supporting our local team?  Everyone loves a winner...Go Dogs, Go!

Then we had the 8th Annual In The Soil Festival wrapping up tonight in downtown St. Catharines, primarily on James Street and over at the new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at 15 Artists' Common.

The three-day music and arts fest has grown considerably over the years, attracting larger crowds each and every year with an ever-expanding artist roster.  This year hundreds of participants presented music from a wide variety of musical genres to large and appreciative audiences under the big tent erected on James Street.

In addition, art exhibits and interactive displays popped up throughout downtown St. Catharines, catering to a wide audience including families.  My neighbour Sandy Middleton, for example, hosted guests throughout the weekend in her upstairs studio overlooking James Street with a wide variety of her creative art on sale.

I toured the James Street area twice this weekend, and the variety of displays was intriguing to say the least.  There was literally something for everyone this weekend, and for the price of a weekend pass you could take it all in from Friday to Sunday.

In The Soil continues to provide outstanding value for money every year, giving Niagara residents yet another reason to come downtown and see what's happening in our city core.

While all that was going on, the Niagara Symphony wrapped up their Pops! concerts for the current season at the new FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre with a Gershwin-themed programme featuring Artist-in-Residence Stewart Goodyear and the NSO conducted by Music Director Bradley Thachuk.

Partridge Hall has established itself as one of the premiere concert halls in Ontario already, and it provides a great home for the Niagara Symphony along with a myriad of performing artists catering to almost every musical taste.

The Cairns Recital Hall hosts all sorts of events as well, and I was pleasantly surprised by the large turnout for the Royal Bank Tuesday Music@Noon recitals hosted by faculty and music students with the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University.  I finally had a chance to catch a recital there in February, and these free events are a perfect opportunity to check out the new space and hear some of the great young talent we have right here in Niagara.

The newly-opened Film House at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is filling a need many of us in the city have known to exist for years now - a top-notch venue for screening films both old and new right in the heart of the city.  Gone are the days of the movie palaces downtown, of course, which numbered I believe five at their height of popularity about half a century ago.  But the Film House is right for the times, and just right for downtown St. Catharines.

Meantime Robertson Hall has been the new home for much of the live theatre presented at the PAC this season, including the inaugural season for Essential Collective Theatre at their new home.  Both times I attended ECT shows the crowds were large and appreciative and the shows were exceptional.

Although the days of traditional department stores in downtown St. Catharines are long gone, many smaller, trendy and quirky locations have sprung up to replace them, offering unique gifts and one-of-a-kind items in almost every price range.

You just have to visit places like the Craft Market on James Street, for example, to see what the new face of downtown St. Catharines retail looks like.

Another retail shopping experience is in the planning stages, of course, with the current capital campaign for the future Garden City Food Co-Op well underway.  Another Investment Sunday event today at the offices of Cowork Niagara on St. Paul Street raised the fundraising total to over $60,000 at this moment, and that will certainly continue to grow as the campaign rolls along.  The need for a downtown grocery store is acute, and a food co-op looks to be the way to go.  You can find out more about how you can help to make it happen in downtown St. Catharines by going to the Garden City Food Co-Op website or Facebook page.

The variety of restaurants and eateries both large and small is second to none right now, with everything from Beechwood Doughnuts and Rise Above offering vegan fare to exceptional fine dining at Wellington Court, and everything in between.  You will never go hungry in downtown St. Catharines!

We even have a new micro-brewery opening on St. Paul Street in one of the old Dani's Bistro locations.  Plan B should be open shortly, and that will be a perfect fit for the downtown core with the new influx of people for events on a weekly basis.

Speaking of an influx of people, the opening late last year of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts downtown has helped to create a need for considerably more student housing in the downtown core, so two new developments from Pen Terra Developments on Raymond at James Street and also just below Welland Avenue at Lake Street are moving along at a good pace these days.  I can see both from the sunroom of our downtown home, and they are encouraging signs more people will be living and spending in our downtown core in the not-too-distant future.

A further student residence is nearing completion on Queenstown Street on the site of the former CHSC studios, while plans are moving forward on a residential development of some sort at the site of the former St. Catharines General Hospital on Queenston.  On the other side of town, the former Hotel Dieu hospital site is to be home for a seniors residence in the coming years if all goes well.

So what does all this mean?  It means the major cash infusions from all levels of government as well as private investors and developers have literally changed the face of our downtown in a relatively short period of time.

While it took several decades for the decline to reach critical levels, it has really taken less than a decade to reverse much of the stagnation and decay of the downtown as a result of that prolonged decline.

It has also infused residents of St. Catharines with a lot more pride in their city, I believe, and many more reasons to celebrate what we have right here in the Garden City.  You can see that with the many people attending events downtown on a regular basis.

Sure, nothing is perfect.  We have lots of work still ahead of us, from completing the transition of two-way traffic in the core to the completion of the Burgoyne Bridge on St. Paul Street West.  But the face of the city has fundamentally changed in the last decade, and now we can start to reap the benefits of all that infrastructure spending.

If you still have not found time to come downtown and see what we have to offer, now is as good a time as any to find out.

A whole new world of interesting tastes, experiences and shopping await you downtown.  It's time to discover, explore, celebrate and yes, tell others about what's been happening right in our own backyard.

Have a great week!

May 1st, 2016.

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