Downtown revitalization will take unprecedented cooperation

By Robert Washburn

If Deputy Mayor Stan Frost is correct, the revitalization of the downtown business area in both Cobourg and Port Hope is critical to the economic well being of West Northumberland. But this bold statement is going to take a lot more than just a light-bulb moment to reach the final results.

Cobourg and Port Hope are undertaking an economic development program under the supervision of the Ontario Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Rural Affairs based on the American program Mainstreet USA. The idea is to complete a comprehensive review of data to determine the strength and weaknesses, along with gathering customer and business profiles. Then, a strategic action plan is completed. If successful, the downtown rebrands itself within the local economy and draws more people to businesses and services they need and want.

Historically, downtown revitalization plans mainly looked at physical upgrades, like fixing up the fronts of buildings and placing some hanging baskets. There was nothing wrong with this approach, since many rural towns, villages and cities faced serious problems with aging facades. And, it worked as urban tourists loved to come to enjoy the postcard-like 19th century main streets.

But that is not enough this time around.

Downtown revitalization is always about empty storefronts. Nothing gets the public more worried about the future of a town than seeing vacant retail space. But, like so many issues facing rural Ontario, the solutions are not simple and it demands innovative thinking, along with major cultural changes within the downtown business community.

The ministry process is no guarantee of success, but it gives focus to the process, if nothing else. But there are several keys if it is going to work.

To begin, there must be public involvement beyond the usual obligatory consultation meetings. These events draw out a narrow slice of the population, often those with time and energy to step forward. However, there are countless people who are unable to attend.

While groups like Friends of Downtown Cobourg, a loosely knit group of residents, can be beneficial in terms of formally organizing the voice of residents, those in charge must be prepared to open up alternative opportunities for input both formal and informal to get ideas and reactions to various proposals. Remember, these are potential customers.

Next, the blame game must be avoided. No one questions the impact of big box stores on the retail community. Right or wrong, political leaders have allowed them into the community and it is part of the economic landscape. To trash the politicians and hurl vitriolic insults may be cathartic in the short-term, but it does not change the reality. The big box stores are here to stay. So, let’s move on and take charge of our own destiny.

Finally, the need for unprecedented cooperation between business and building owners must occur. The naysayers, pessimists and cynics cannot be tolerated. Certainly, downtown revitalization efforts were made in the past with varying degree of success. But opting out solves nothing.

Politicians face a serious conundrum. Business owners generally don’t like government interference. Regulations are met with dismay since all feel they should be allowed to operate without referring to anyone else. They will need to find a balance between policy and practicality to ensure the necessary steps are taken without turning off entrepreneurs.

Frost said he is willing to go to the highest levels of government to bring about changes necessary to invigorate the downtown. It is a spirit also found in Port Hope. While this determination is admirable, it must be tempered. Certainly battles will be won and lost during this three-year process. Let hope, despite the victories and losses, the war is won.