Sunday, March 12, 2017

Nanaimo's downtown

Great that the "No-to-the $80-million-arena" side won Nanaimo's referendum yesterday--and won so decisively (80% against!).

But what should we do with that downtown site--and the downtown generally? The idea that City Council had shelved of a Granville-Island style market, plus a fair bit of housing, plus waterfront walkway would be a great start. So would a foot ferry to Vancouver--that's definitely something worth the city subsidizing to at least some extent. Persuading someone to re-open a downtown movie theatre (with cafe and bookshop attached) would help. And beyond that? Make (well advertized) extended free parking available a couple of blocks away from the downtown on some of what are now vacant lots. Invest further in live theatre and live music. To the extent that we emphasize tourism, encourage visitors to come over from Vancouver and buy antiques and works of art (including native art!) --not cruise ships that people get off of for a few hours to buy trinkets. Carry through with the idea of extending the waterfront walkway to Departure Bay. Have a little shuttle bus constantly going back and forth between the centre of downtown on Commercial and the old railway station in the Old City Quarter--and a similar bus doing the same between Commercial and the university, to bring the students downtown.

The downtown currently has far more plusses than people give it credit for--real character along Commercial and the Old City Quarter, some decent shops and and restaurants (and cafes), decent live music. And great views too!

If we invest in making the downtown more livable, more people will want to live there--and that's a better investment than cruise ships and conference centres that bring one-time-only visitors, or none at all. Plus, as Richard Florida showed decades ago, investing in the culture of a city draws new business more effectively than anything else.

So far as hotels go, let's encourage modest-sized proposals for this modest-sized city--not out-sized projects that would depend on a continual stream of package tours from overseas. A good example is the one that's just been put forward for a six-story hotel at Front and Chapel ( I love that it includes a top-floor bar that would be open to locals who want to take in the great view over a beer, not just to hotel guests.

Investing in the culture of a city can include sports too--but let's do that smartly, and within our means. As the example of the Vancouver Canadians has shown, the experience of a sports event is at least as important as the level of league play. The Canadians play in a Single A short-season league--i.e., at the lowest minor league level. But because the stadium has character and the experience is made fun, people love it--and it really does add to the character of that city. We already have a decent hockey arena and a team in a league at a decent level (for our sized city); we really don't need the WHL. But what about investing, say, $5 million or $10 million to upgrade Saurauxmen Stadium so we could get a Single A baseball team in Nanaimo? That stadium already has real character--and a history (Mickey Mantle was there at the opening). Portand built a brand new Triple A baseball stadium for $15 million; we could do an awful lot to improve Saurauxmen with $5 or $10 million, attract a low-level minor league pro baseball team--and have a better sports culture year-round (not just in hockey season). Sports venues don't need to be in the centre of downtown blocking the view--and they don't need to cost $80 million!

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