The plan for downtown

Rob Thomas

Rhino’s Ramblings

After literally two years of study the plan for Moose Jaw’s downtown has been unveiled and it’s an ambitious look into the future. A plan that may well dictate how the city ultimately defines itself.

I have just returned from Medicine Hat where I looked at how that city changed in the 35 years when I was part of the western exodus in search of work and easy cash. When I was first in the Hat downtown business was still alive and the party was thumping. 

The Hat was in a transformational stage of the TransCanada bypassing the downtown core. The city was rapidly expanding and along Dunmore Road a transition was occurring as businesses were establishing themselves following new residential development. 

Most importantly though, development was growing unbridled on both sides of the TransCanada as businesses sought to capture money from not only passersby but also nearby more affluent young families moving into the new developments. 

At first there was lots of resistance but it was obvious what the marketplace wanted and that is for the stores and other amenities to be out on the highway. It had a major impact on the Hat’s downtown core as what really is left behind is not business-driven but publicly-financed.

In many ways, Moose Jaw right now is similar to Medicine Hat but we are where the Hat was 20 years ago with two main streets. Moose Jaw has Main Street but we also have Thatcher Drive as our two major business sectors with most major business development occurring outside the downtown core.

When it comes to things like downtown revitalization there are plenty of examples in other centres of what has been done with varying results.

One common thing in many other cities is they have abandoned parking meters. Swift Current, North Battleford, Lloydminster and Medicine Hat long ago pulled their meters  — instead going to simple two-hour free parking. Now staying more than two hours does not come without penalty as bylaw enforcement officers regularly patrol and issue tickets for those who stay longer. Has it revitalized their downtown cores? No, but it certainly was very helpful.

Annually in Moose Jaw, the city receives a request to allow two weeks of free parking during the all-important Christmas shopping rush. In a report to council there’s always a cost given — lost parking fees and fines — but never a cost if they don’t. Parking fees and fines seem like an addiction the city cannot kick.

But Moose Jaw has gone the opposite route. We have doubled our parking meter rates and dropped our transit fares to and from the downtown as an incentive to use public transit. It’s an attempt at social engineering in an age of convenience and cars.

Because, let me tell you, ample free parking at the big box stores is one of their big advantages over going downtown. I know more than a couple of people who resist going downtown because of paid parking.

Over the past 25 years, Moose Jaw and other levels of government have invested massively in our downtown. We have changed out the sidewalks and lighting, invested in the spa, reinvented the CPR station, built a casino, revitalized the Mae Wilson Theatre, re-purposed the old Eaton’s store and topped it off with Mosaic Place.

And definitely, business has replied. In many ways things continue to grow as the Grant Hall Hotel was magnificently restored, the Scott Block re-purposed and businesses opening.

The question is now: How does the city continue to support the dream of a vibrant downtown when the market forces are pulling against its survival? Is the drive towards Thatcher and the TransCanada going to finally defeat attempts to revitalize the downtown? 

Ironically the city’s acting Economic Development Officer closed his long term downtown family men’s wear store, and moved to the mall opening a dollar store almost 20 years ago.

Believe it or not Moose Jaw has three of the biggest attractions other downtowns are envious of. We have three grocery stores where most cities trying to get people to live and work in their downtown core have none. 

We have a farmers’ market just starting to develop and it does attract people downtown. In Swift Current, the city has invested massively in a downtown performance area for artists to entertain during the farmer’s market. The two work together to bring people into the downtown core.

I once asked a co-worker who travelled regularly from Swift Current to Regina why they never stopped in Moose Jaw for a meal. The answer was simple: by the time they got downtown, found a parking spot and paid for it, it took 30 minutes. In that time they would almost be in Regina anyhow, so why not just keep on driving? That is lost economic opportunity for Moose Jaw and location matters.

It’s what Medicine Hat discovered at least when it comes to retail. There is simply too much traffic and potential sales driving right past your door for you not to encourage it. 

It’s something that’s happening here already with new hotel development beside the highway that hurts the downtown which was hoping people would be sleeping down there.

Although smaller merchants don’t like it if we don’t have the big box retailers here — as people are then more apt to shop in Regina. It’s something Mayor Ray Boughen saw when he made concessions to get WalMart and others to build here. And did it upset downtown businesses, yes it did.

Did it hurt the little guys? You bet it did, but how many jobs and dollars it saved from people just driving 45 minutes east is likely massive. And once people are shopping in Regina, are they coming back to shop in Moose Jaw? It’s a no win scenario. 

These are just some of the pressures facing revitalizing the downtown and it’s not an easy task.

It really takes a lot of luck.