Public meeting, Sept. 27, 7-9pm, Seniors’ Centre (Freeman and Indian Point rooms), 2285 New Street
Our waterfront/downtown is the “most popular cultural destination” mentioned by residents across the city, according to early findings from consultants working on the city’s Cultural Action Plan. The consultants will present those findings and invite feedback during a Cultural Action Plan “report back” public session, Sept. 27, 7-9pm, at the Burlington Seniors’ Centre on New St.
As a community we will need to leverage this asset to spur economic development downtown and across the city. A first step is to decide what kind of downtown and waterfront we want – is it a tourism draw? a cultural and entertainment hub? a heritage area? mostly for local residents? Once we land on a collective vision for our downtown and waterfront, we’ll need to take steps to get there.
This summer, I joined city staff at the “Transforming and Revitalizing Downtown Summit” in Hamilton, featuring local and international speakers. The focus was on ensuring a vibrant and health downtown – and because downtowns are historically on waterways, a healthy waterfront also. The conference identified the key drivers of vibrant waterfronts/downtowns, and outlined the steps municipalities can take. Some key themes emerged.
Investment by local governments.
Municipal incentives are often a deciding factor for companies looking to locate/ relocate downtown. There are many examples from the conference, but here’s one from our next door neighbour in Hamilton: Building on the work of urbanist Richard Florida, Hamilton identified attracting the creative class (people employed in media, design, architecture, the arts, a like industries) and a key component of revitalizing the downtown. The city invested in some creative class “mapping” to determine where these workers already work, and what they were looking for in a work environment. They found geographic clusters of workers – a creative class district, if you will, and took the next step: partnering with the private sector to leverage that new-found knowledge.
Partnership with the private sector.
Studies have shown that every $1 in public investment brings $3 to $5 in private sector investment. After Hamilton determined that many of its creative class workers were clustered on streets near the downtown (James, for example), they partnered with private commercial property owners to create a brochure of empty office space, and targeted it directly to creative class workers. Those brochures were dropped off in Toronto, in coffee shops and other places frequented by creative class workers. The sales pitch: have it all (funky workplace; downtown locale), but don’t pay through the nose (i.e. don’t pay Toronto prices).
A balance of residential/commercial development.
Most downtowns have more commercial than residential development. Burlington has two-thirds residential. But recent condo developments haven’t brought the “feet on the street” that daytime, year-round office presence will. The ideal mix is 50-50 office/residential, but the majority of developments downtown remain residential (see Development Updates below). We have an opportunity to leverage municipal land – parking lots 4 and 5 on Brant and John streets – to attract office redevelopment.
An aggressive, fully funded, business attraction strategy.
The Burlington Economic Development Corporation is tasked with business attraction, but must spend significant time on fundraising events to meet its budget. We need to fully fund the BEDC to free them to focus exclusively on bringing jobs to Burlington, and keeping them here.
Leveraging our downtown waterfront.
Events at Spencer Smith Park don’t always translate into a visit to the downtown, and we’re working to change that. The waterfront is a key driver for tourism and economic development, as well as a jewel for local residents. Though City Council voted to sunset the official waterfront citizens’ advisory committee, the citizen members unanimously agreed to continue their work, with support from my office. Details below.
My Take: The bottom line is this: Cities near us are taking these steps. If we don’t, we’ll be left behind. A recent report from the Real Estate Investment Network concluded the best places to invest in Ontario are our neighbours – Hamilton, Kitchener and Cambridge, and Waterloo. Burlington didn’t even make the top 10. We can change that, with a vision, concrete strategy and political will.