Future planning needs to focus on downtown

I have lived and worked in downtown Duncan on and off for nearly 25 years now. The years here have taught me there is no better place to come home to after my travels.

It has always bothered me that, despite an accelerating beautification program, there still persists a commercial vacancy rate issue downtown. It is a serious ongoing concern for businesses living on the edge, and landlords wondering how long their tenants will last.

Granted, there are a number of solid downtown businesses, some of which have been here for longer than I have, but many are still very new and struggling.

I can’t keep count of how many businesses have failed over the years. A business failure is never gentle. Both the landlord and tenant often lose. Many a substantial investment, sometimes a life savings, has been lost.

It appears there just isn’t enough customers to keep most downtown businesses afloat. That’s hard to believe when there are more than 80,000 people in the area and local mall parking lots are full at most times.

Part of the problem is the malls are not within the city boundaries making them competitors with downtown.

If they were part of the city’s business community, then the opportunity for keeping the core alive, and thriving, would be more attainable.

The recently completed University Village planning process is recommending sweeping changes to how the urban area of North Cowichan and Duncan will look in the future.

The message is on the wall: commercial development is being significantly promoted outside of the city core. It is because of the new age way of planning, where businesses are on the ground floor of higher density residential buildings.

How, I ask, can downtown continue to grow and thrive when both local governments are promoting the increase of commercial construction and occupancy outside of the downtown core?

Unfortunately, the final approval of the planning document is scheduled to happen this summer when many of us are away on vacation and not interested in a planning document.

The solution I propose, is a bigger city — a city that includes all of the urban area up to North Cowichan’s urban containment boundary and a plan that identifies the city downtown as the central place to do business, find professional services and enjoy community events.

It would not be a complicated process to achieve. It could begin with North Cowichan and the City of Duncan agreeing to co-manage a larger city. The legal agreements can come later, perhaps even “amalgamation.”

Next step would be an imaginative economic development plan to make downtown the Cowichan Valley hub of commercial activity, and a great place to live for people seeking a smaller lifestyle with the ability to leave the car at home or not even own one at all.

We could then house North Cowichan’s and Duncan’s services under one roof, perhaps in a new civic building occupying the long-vacant corner of Canada and Trunk Avenues.

This would provide civic services to all city residents, a great improvement considering North Cowichan’s municipal offices are miles away and not served by transit.

Then the old Duncan city hall could become part of a renewed city square, providing space for a badly needed public art gallery; perhaps even a small theatre space and washrooms open for downtown patrons.

Paul Fletcher is former Duncan city councillor who writes monthly in the News Leader Pictorial.

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