Downtown core still looking for a solution; economic ninjas leading the charge this time.

By Pepper Parr

Sooner or later we will figure it out.  The next stab at finding an answer to that always perplexing question: What do we do with the downtown core?  is being led by those able financial ninja’s at the Economic Development Corporation (BEDC).

They have been asked to stick handle a study with two key objectives: quantify the market potential and constraints for the development of office space and while they are at it quantify the unique economic factors affecting retail operations in our downtown core relative to other areas of the city.

Tough part of town to do retail in? Consultants will tell the city just what it costs to do business in the downtown core and what it costs elsewhere in the city - and why.

Retailers claim it costs more to run a business downtown.  Robert Lyons, a Burlington real estate professional produced some data that suggested property assessments in the downtown core were tough for retailers to cope with. There was a lot of anecdotal stuff floating around but the people making the decisions wanted hard data.

The BEDC has been given up to $15,000 to play with and get this done, in what can at best be seen as a real tight schedule.  Proposals in by February 28th; contract awarded March 5th then meet with BEDC staff to go over what’s going to get done three days later.  Then just over a month after the Preliminary draft of the report is due and discussed at an hour and a half meeting the same day.  Final report is due 12 days later.

May 10th the writers of the report present and defend the thing at a Council Workshop.

Much of the forward thinking being done in Burlington it tied to the Strategic Plan that set out three Strategic Directions for the city.

Vibrant Neighbourhoods – and while downtown is described as everyone’s neighbourhood – it isn’t very vibrant.  However, it wasn’t all that long ago when there were dozens of stores with newspapers covering the plate glass and a for rent sign in the window.

Prosperity- bring hundreds of those high tech, high paying jobs to the city.  Everyone knows that the city is not going to see a manufacturing plant with 500 new jobs on the horizon in this lifetime.  Intellectual property, bio-tech, high value added are the buzz words for the economic development crowd.  But to have any of this one needs decent office space – and there  isn’t any of that in the downtown core – yet.

The third Strategic Direction was Excellence in Government which meant delivering services to the community at an acceptable cost and listening to the people who live in the city.  The budget will probably come in at something very close to 2% – the draft version asks for 3.4% but look for some whittling down of that number.

Mayor Goldring has focused on economic development more than anything else (he has spent a lot of time and energy improving the working relationships between his Council members  – but that’s another story) so far in his mandate.  He was insistent that there be a solid, thoroughly thought through Strategic Plan and he made sure the time and the resources were put into the Task.  City Council spent eleven half day sessions producing that document. The Mayor did the thinking behind the innovateBurlington program and has for the past six months being setting things up for a major look at what is wrong with the downtown core.

In May, 2011 Council asked city staff to update Council on the Status of the Core Commitment along with a work plan,  time frames and a budget for a strategy designed to engage the community.  Key to this was an implementation for delivering the vision, whatever it turned out to be.

Staff produced their report in August of 2011 – and it didn’t hit enough nails on the head to get the job done.  While the Core Commitment had been ongoing for a number of years, they realized now that they really didn’t have enough data.  The anecdotal stuff they did have was getting them nowhere.

The Mayor’s office could see where this was going so Council directed  that a Task Group be formed to “identify challenges, opportunities, roles and responsibilities for creating a vibrant downtown”.

The Core Commitment people had already produced language that described the downtown core as a neighbourhood that belonged to everyone – and while true from a philosophical point of view – its tough to really believe that the folks in Alton and The Orchard or Aldershot for that matter,  see the downtown core as “their” neighbourhood.  These groups of people find what they need in their immediate community or head for the malls.

The Task Group got put together and did what any group does – (don’t think firemen do this)  – determined their mandate, wrote it down and then met and decided that a SWOT (Strengths,Weaknesses,Opportunities,Threats) analysis was needed and that recommendations delivered had to be based on fact – but there weren’t all that many facts in front of them – so they wanted some targeted research to advance the understanding of systemic  issues affecting the health of the downtown core.

That called for three research projects: Benchmarking, Market/Customer Analysis and the Cost of Doing business Downtown.  The cost study is what the city wants to get done pronto.

The Benchmarking is being done by an intern who will compare what has been done in the Burlington downtown with what has been done in other downtown locations of a similar size and similar socio-economics.

The Market/Customer analysis will be the object of a Request for Proposal to be issued at a later date.

So – what have we got?

A Core Commitment group that kind of stalled.  To be fair the Core Commitment is a vision document and a strategy to achieve the vision but they have stumbled a bit

A Task Group that hopes it can do a better job.  And they are going to do their best to ensure that they have valid data to work from.

And three research proposals.

All this to inform and direct a Workshop that is going to take place on what can we do to leverage those two parking lots in the downtown core, spitting distance from city hall.

Is the Brant and James intersection the location for some Class A office space or will it go up in a parking lot a block away?

Councillor Jack Dennison has had dreams about what can be done with those properties.  In 2006 the city thought they had a winner when six proposals came in response to a proposal to develop 100,000 to 150,000 sqft of Class A office space with a parking garage for 500 vehicles.

Something along these lines was planned for Burlington's downtown core - but McMaster stiffed the city when a nicer deal came along.

Before that idea got very far McMaster came along with their idea of putting one of their schools in the downtown core and the city retracted the RFP they had put out.  But McMaster stiffed the city when a better offer came along. A BEDC document explains that unfortunate experience thusly: “Unfortunately, new opportunities later in the process presented themselves to McMaster and the downtown campus project was abandoned by McMaster.”  Care to know who owned the land that the university is now located on?

Somewhere in all this there is some progress.

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