Retailers along Brant Street did next to nothing to gussy up their part of town for Christmas: How come?

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  January 6, 2013  You live in Burlington; you shopped and therefore you shopped at the malls.  I didn’t know Burlington had that many cars until I went looking for a place to park at Mapleview Mall Christmas Eve day – but I found a spot and, as is my habit, did all my shopping in less than an hour – knew what I wanted to buy and where it was being sold.  Then I strolled along the different levels and saw a few things I had not thought of and that was my Christmas Shopping – done.

You didn’t pick up much Christmas spirit along this stretch of Brant Street if you walked along it during the holiday.

Earlier in the week I had occasion to be on lower Brant Street and wondered what had happened.  There was nothing to suggest that it was Christmas – well yes, there were those pitiful little lights on the street lamp poles.  Even Civic Square had a lackluster look to it – until the lights were on and then it looked decent enough.

I thought perhaps it was just the bottom of Brant Street that had been ignored – so walked north to Caroline and then on up to Prospect – and it was even more grim.

So what’s with this phrase we use about having a “vibrant” downtown core that is a pleasant place to shop and meet with friends?

Once the location for one of the better “hotels” in town this Emshih property doesn’t have even a Christmas twig on it.

The pictures that accompany  this article  show precious little in the way of Seasonal decoration – with the exception being the works who showed some creativity.

Last year the Burlington Downtown Business Association (BDBA) held a contest for the best displays – several of which were very innovative, Especially the one done up by the condo sales agency on Lakeshore.  Did that competition get cancelled this year?

Even with the contest last year,  lower Brant didn’t look all that well then either.  Emshih Developments owns a number of the properties along Brant; one would have hoped they would put some of the profits back into the community.  They found it useful to financially support the Mayor’s One Dream that we are told we will hear more about sometime in January.

The opportunity to do something really spectacular with this storefront was lost to one of the reputedly better marketers in the city.  This was embarrassing.

The Works, a new franchise in town that created a buzz on their opening day by offering a free burger. They have the most innovative storefront look of the Season.  Is that because they are new and don’t know any better – Burlington doesn’t appear to “do” Christmas.

It didn’t get any better when you got off Brant Street.  One would have thought that a pub with the name Dickens would have taken the spirit of the season in its teeth and done the place up really nice.  They opted to spend twenty bucks on stuff from the dollar store.  Can you feel the vibrancy?

The Downtown Business Association used to support this effort financially – they had to cut back – Burlington Hydro took up the slack. So what is it that BDBA does for their members?

The BDBA had to tell the Festival of Lights people that the $5000 donation they traditionally made to that organization,  which sets up the lights that are dotted throughout Spencer Smith Park and along Lakeshore Road would not be forthcoming in 2012.  Fortunately Burlington Hydro came to the rescue.

During the Car Free Sunday last summer that saw Brant Street closed to traffic so that people could stroll the streets and ride bicycles in complete safety and shop if they wished – there were stores that didn’t bother to open.  There were people at the Caroline – Brant Street intersection close to spitting nickels because of the traffic delays – had they known this was all to aid the objective of getting people out of their cars – and that some stores didn’t open; one wonders how they would have applied the word vibrant to that situation?

There seems to be a mis-alignment here.  Is the BDBA an organization that has lost its drive or purpose?  Anyone within the BDBA boundary pays a tax levy whether they like it or not.  Are they getting value for what they are paying?

Those retailers also pay into a parking levy which in lieu of providing on site parking.   That parking levy was used by the Bridgewater development on Lakeshore as the plank on which they built their argument about not having to provide parking space – instead they would pay into the levy just the way other downtown core business people do.  With 150 + hotel rooms and two condo’s – there is going to be a parking need.  A problem brewing there that someone at Planning hasn’t thought through.

The restaurants were doing a very brisk business on the Thursday and Friday leading up to the start of the seasonal holiday for city hall.  Impossible to get a parking spot in the lot off Elizabeth Street.

In the fall the city held a Downtown Workshop that filled the Art Centre as people listened to a consultants report and took part in exercises where they got to trot out their ideas and visions.  All good stuff – we suppose but one can`t see any new ideas on our main downtown streets.

Is it even possible to grow our downtown to the point where it is a busy, vibrant, profitable place for retail and serviced people to locate?

Sheila Bottin, the Deloitte consultant the city has hired to advise on what kind of commercial office space can be built on the John Street and Elizabeth Street parking lots has told the city to “forgetaboutit” – developers can’t get the rents they need to cover the cost of providing those underground parking places.  And no one is going to take a bus downtown – they would rather take the GO into Toronto.

Brian Dean, Executive Director of the BDBA works his tail off for his association. Is he beating a dead horse

The Village Square is up for sale with much gnashing of teeth on the part of the public, or so we are told, but the location no longer works for many retailers.  There was a time when it was THE hot spot in the city but some less than wise management practices resulted in many restaurants fleeing to Brant Street where rents were more manageable.  Brian Dean, president of the BDBA,  will tell you the biggest favour Jack Friedman, owner of Village Square, did for him was when he revised the rental agreements: “those people moved to Brant Street suddenly the downtown core had a future.

But that future is stymied.  Management mistakes by others are not what one builds a business plan on.  Dean is tireless in his work for his association – it would be nice to see his association members doing as much for themselves as he does for them.  Perhaps Dean has done all he can do and someone else should take the helm?  Something isn’t working.

Jody Wellings has toiled tirelessly at city hall on the city’s core commitment and never fails to bring a positive attitude to the job – but there don’t appear to be any solutions that are gaining traction.  What is it we’re missing here?

Brant Street is a great place to be during the Sound of Music but RibFest and the Children’s Festival don’t do much for the retailers.

It might be too early to tell if the Performing Arts Centre has had the hoped for impact on the restaurant business.  Melodia Mediteranean Cuisine and Bar opened and is getting decent reviews but Prime Rib announced a move from Brant around the corner to Locust, a stone throw from the Performing Arts Centre close to a year ago and it has yet to open its doors.

We’ve not seen solid attendance and audited numbers from the PAC people yet, so we don’t know what the attendance has been.  The line-up has been impressive but everyone knew, or should have known, that it was going to be a long painful labour getting the place to the point where it had created a market for live entertainment and a following for specific kinds of entertainment.

For a retailer that  sells poinsettias by the truck load this is just not a Christmas look.

The feel of Brant Street is in the hands of the retailers; they decide what they want to do to their store fronts.  If they are bare and uninviting – people stay away.  Yes, parking is a problem but it doesn’t take long to get a parking spot, just some patience.  But one needs a reason to go downtown – and if the storefronts are as dowdy as they were in the photographs we took – heck I’ll drive to Oakville, which by the way got written up in a Toronto electronic magazine as the place with the nicest Christmas feel to it on the main street.

Mayor Goldring’s former Chief of Staff, Frank McKeown,  may have figured out the solution when he said “Forever Elvis” will work.  If all else fails – perhaps?


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1 comment to Retailers along Brant Street did next to nothing to gussy up their part of town for Christmas: How come?

  • Teresa Seaton

    I agree with you I was very disappointed this year wit the downtown effort to create a spirit of Christmas in the core. Is there not a best dressed BDBA event to drive this?
    We all appreciate the efforts at Spencer Park and I was very saddened by the senseless vandalism to our Red Coats.
    No time to give up though. There is always next year…