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Tristan Cleveland: What Barrie can teach us about valuing our downtown

Recent government moves show how much we take our historic core for granted, and fail to capitalize on what makes us special.

The Central Library in downtown Halifax draws thousands of people every week.

Metro file

The Central Library in downtown Halifax draws thousands of people every week.

Jeff Lehman, mayor of Barrie, Ont., told me we don’t realize how lucky we are out east to have beautiful, historic downtowns.

I agree. The decision by Canada Border Services Agency to abandon the peninsula in favour of Bayers Lake is only the latest example of governments taking our downtown for granted.

I met Mayor Lehman at a planning conference in P.E.I., where he told me a story that helped put in perspective how precious a historic core is.

Barrie is home to Tyger Shark, a fast-growing digital media company, the kind every city wants to attract. They started in a low-cost suburban warehouse, but as they grew, they realized they couldn’t score the kind of talent they needed while their office had so little nearby.

“Creative people want to work in an environment that includes a place to go out after work, a place with good restaurants, where there are events and cultural activities,” Lehman told me.

When the business owners talked to him about the places in Barrie that could meet their needs, “it was only three or four blocks. You guys have like fifty. I honestly envy it in some ways, as the mayor of an Ontario city that doesn’t have the same size or scale of historic buildings and environment.”

In this economy, Lehman told me, the need for a solid, thriving core has shifted from “a nice-to-have, to foundational.”

If it’s foundational, all three levels of government have been selling off Halifax’s concrete for scrap.

Canada Border Services Agency is the latest in a list of government institutions, including Access Nova Scotia and Census Canada, to move all their employees out of the urban core to cheap land in Bayers Lake.

In 2013, Halifax made the problem worse by selling 183acres of land in the business park for $9.3 million to developer Basim Halef, nearly doubling its size. The province stepped in to help make that a good deal for Halef, buying just 15 acres for $7.5 million (many times its assessed value) for the new QEII outpatient centre.

Meanwhile, the city continues to tax Walmart a quarter as much per square foot as small businesses on Quinpool, which cost much less to service.

If all three levels of government want to conspire to undermine our core, this is how to do it.

There are signs of hope. Halifax is working on a fix for commercial taxes and the city is investing heavily in the streetscaping, transit, and projects like the Central Library. The province has shown it can get the idea in theory, and is moving Sydney’s NSCC to the town’s core to be “an economic driver.” Municipal Affairs and Service Nova Scotia are also both moving, and happily, they will only consider locations downtown.

But for every decision that supports the core, there is one that undermines it. Instead of all government investments reinforcing each other toward the same goals, we have to spend extra money to make up for lost progress.

The bad decisions I’ve listed above were made largely by bureaucrats following their narrow mandate with no regard for our broader economic success. It must seem crazy from the perspective of Barrie, a city making the most of a few blocks of historic core, that simply can’t afford to let what they have fail.

We can’t let ours fail either. A coordinated, consistent commitment to supporting our downtown from all three levels of government is long overdue. In a  knowledge economy, downtown is the most precious thing we’ve got.

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