FROM THE CHEAP SEATS: Downtown’s big challenge should be of concern to all

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FROM THE CHEAP SEATS: Downtown’s big challenge should be of concern to all



For the majority of people in Belleville, recent divisions among the Belleville Downtown Improvement Association membership probably matter very little.

But they should matter for several reasons, not the least of which is the city is two-thirds of the way through spending $35 million in taxpayer money in the core.

But that’s not the only reason.

The most recent conflict creating headlines from the BDIA is about as old as the organization itself – namely one group of members wants to go in one direction and another wants to go in a different one.

But the problem is really just a symptom of a faulty structure under which the BDIA currently operates.

Under the current structure, the operation is run almost entirely by the small business owners who make up the BDIA membership. And the problem with that is twofold.

First, small business owners generally have more pressing concerns than running the BDIA, notably running their own business. They don’t have time to also run a 200 member operation, at least, not well.

Second, people who run small businesses are generally used to getting their way. After all, the chain of command is usually relatively small and stops, and starts, with the owners.

That dynamic changes with an organization of 200, especially when most of those people are also used to being in charge.

The solution, which has been presented to the BDIA before, is to hire someone – or several someones – to run the organization on their behalf.

Not to run the organization as they see fit. But to run it on behalf of the membership and the board. With the membership and board setting direction, and staff making it work. The way every other not-for-profit group works.

(As an aside, the BDIA board should be elected every two years, not every four, in order to better reflect the speed with which issues arise these days.)

In order to make such a system work, the person at the top should be a professional organizer, advocate and administrator; someone who can, among other things, advocate on behalf of BDIA members and the organization as a whole, and oversee staff to successfully manage other issues, including but not limited to event planning and promotion.

Instead, the current BDIA board plans to buy $40,000 worth of cameras to replace the ones that have been in the core the last eight years.

The rationale is, supposedly, the cameras will make people feel safer in the core

The reality is it will make store owners feel safer and help the police catch what few criminals there are active in the core.

It will do nothing to make people feel safe, primarily because as we have heard over and over for at least the last decade, the problem in downtown is not the actual presence of danger but the perception of danger.

That problem will be solved by continuing to build police presence in the core – a process started by Belleville police in recent years – and bringing more people downtown, including brining new businesses to currently empty spaces.

None of which will be done by cameras; both of which could be done by a professional advocate working on behalf of the core.

Which leaves the question, why should anyone not downtown actually care?

Putting aside the $35 million question for moment, there are two fundamental reasons for any city to have a vibrant downtown.

First, regardless of what people would like to be the case, cities are judged, especially by visitors, by their downtowns.

While having no downtown doesn’t necessarily mean no success, such places have a name. They are generally called suburbs.

And the problem with those places, is that people who live there by and large search for what is missing in their own communities in others. And they take their money with them.

Successful downtowns have their own character, their own sense of community, their own charm. They have attraction that can’t be mimicked by malls and strip malls.

People – not all people mind you but many – will seek that out, either in their own communities or others. So we can have people find it here, or elsewhere, it’s up to us.

The flip side of that is the negative impact a rotten core can have on a community.

One reason downtowns are referred to as cores is because they truly are the centre of a city, geographically and culturally.  And like in any core, rot spreads from the inside out, meaning problems in the downtown will eventually spread outward as well.

That means any problem affecting downtown we don’t fix today will eventually spread out to other areas of the city tomorrow. Meaning we don’t actually solve the problems by ignoring them now, we just pay for fixing them later. Or our children do.

Of course, none of this is new. Belleville residents have been having these conversations for generations.

But circumstances have changed and the pressures pulling people away from downtown might be greater now than at any time since Quinte Mall was first built.

While the downtown is going to go through a glitzy $35 million upgrade, it is also facing major new challenges, namely an expanding wall along Bell Boulevard.

While that wall, centred in the Quinte Mall, has been there for decades, it is currently undergoing unprecedented growth.

The casino. The Belleville Senators. New facilities going in and around the former Zellers. More and more restaurants and bars, such as Shoeless Joe’s. Not to mention even more hotels in basically the only part of the city that has any.

In other words, the new and improved downtown faces the very real challenge of a new and improved north end.

And faced with this new and even more daunting challenge, the response of the BDIA is to basically do what it has been doing for the last 30 years.

A definition of insanity: repeat the same action and expect different results.

From the governing side, city council has no immediate plans to do any more than continued infrastructure improvements.

That being said, investing in the Memorial Arena, a downtown parking garage or changes to the any of the Riverfront parking areas would qualify as infrastructure and provide further boosts to the core.

But the reality is that any push to bring the downtown back to life will have to come from where it has always come – the people who live and work downtown.

The core has the bones to survive and thrive.

But to do so, downtown people – not the BDIA board, but the people living and breathing and working in the core every day – will again have to up and go the extra mile to make it work.

As it has always been.

They have done it before. They can do it again. It would be nice if they could get a little help from the rest of us.

Read More: Opinion, From the Cheap Seats, Quinte

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