First steps of Gull Lake downtown revitalization project underway
BY KIT SIMPSON, GULL LAKE ADVANCE
On Feb. 27 council approved a $13,500 budget for the Downtown Beautification Committee to use for improvements to the downtown.
With close to three-quarters of a million people, Mississauga is Canada’s sixth-most populous municipality. In 1974 it became a “city.”
But it is not a city. At least, it’s not a city in a recognizably human sense, and the reason for this is that it has no real downtown.
Downtowns are vital parts of any municipality, whether it’s a city or small town. They are the places from which the rest of the community arose, and they are generally the “face” of the community. Downtown is where adults go to socialize and do their shopping and where teens go to “hang out” and experience a sense of freedom.
When a downtown declines, the community declines. The effects of a declining downtown, or even a downtown that is not being kept up, may not be felt for several years, but they can be devastating. Crumbling infrastructures and an apparent lack of community pride can put off developers, new business projects and tourists. There is also a snowball effect as the signs of neglect signal an apathetic attitude among the residents, thereby encouraging vandalism and criminal behaviour.
Downtown revitalization projects are a means to restore ailing or crumbling downtowns – and even active downtowns can benefit if they’re getting a little long in the tooth.
There are numerous methods of approaching revitalization. Communities in Bloom is one of the most accessible. Identifying weak spots, giving old buildings a new paint job, encouraging owners of vacant buildings to fix them up or even put them back into use are just some of the things that can be done with little cost and a bit of community effort.
The $13,500 set aside to beautify Gull Lake’s downtown will go far in attaining the goal. And while nothing is set in stone yet, there are heritage grants being explored and talk of possible tax breaks for putting abandoned buildings back into operation.
“Council is focused on revitalizing the downtown,” says Mayor Blake Campbell, “and public understanding and support is important. I don’t think many people understand how important it really is. Not only is it important to the local economy it is often the first place visitors see. Visitors often get their first impression of the community when they see the downtown.”
Such projects have succeeded well in the past
The Main Street Saskatchewan program “resulted in a 10 to one return on investment (ROI) in its first year,” according to last year’s report by Parks, Culture and Sport. “The program has generated local commitments of $1.66 million in Main Street capital infrastructure projects – almost 10 times the $172,000 that the province has invested to date.”
Perhaps more important, however, was the increase in citizen involvement, with volunteers giving “the equivalent of 681 eight-hour work days” through such things as committee work, activity planning and event staging to support the program.
Among the towns that took part in the Main Street program were Wolseley, Indian Head, Maple Creek and the City of Prince Albert.
“The Main Street program has enabled us to take a fresh look at our downtown and the opportunities that exist there,” Wolseley Main Street Board Chair Dennis Fjestad said. “In this process, there has been an unprecedented level of investment and excitement in our community and a new, shared vision for what our town can be.”
Heritage projects also play an important role in revitalization, and the Heritage Canada Foundation considers Main Street to be “the heart and soul of a community, the physical evidence of a shared social and economic history.”
Tax incentives are often a part of revitalization. As part of the Town of Assiniboia’s downtown redevelopment, for instance, tax incentives played a role in five major areas:
• New Business Construction
• New Business Established in an Existing Building
• Business Expansion Incentive
• Business Renovation Incentive
• Job Creation Incentive
Of special interest in this case is the Business Renovation Incentive, in which the town provided a rebate to a business “completing a minimum of $5,000.00 in renovations of their commercial improvements.” This was an enormous help in bringing new life to old businesses.
Here in town, the Gull Lake Economic Development Committee has begun meeting one-on-one with local business owners. The purpose of these meetings is to gain information on topics of importance to local business and gage the level of possible involvement.
“I was impressed with the dialogues,” said Mayor Campbell Blake upon completion of the first few interviews. “Overall, meetings with the business owners went very well. We had very good discussions, and plenty of support for downtown revitalization.”
The next step will involve going to businesses located outside of the downtown area, where one of the major concerns is the wall we’ve hit on available Commercial/Light Industrial space.
“A healthy and vibrant downtown will improve the economic health and quality of life in our town,” Campbell wrote on the town’s blog site. “It will create jobs, nurture small businesses, protect property values, and increase the community’s options for goods and services. It goes without saying a healthy downtown is a symbol of community pride and history.”
Gull Lake has both community pride and history – and its downtown should reflect this.
“All we need now,” says Campbell, “is some spring weather to get started.”