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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A downtown college campus?

...it’s an investment in the heart of the city, in our environment, in our future. It has the potential to create assessment growth without new infrastructure and without paving over more agricultural land or cutting down trees...

I was surprised and a little disappointed by Ward 3 Councillor Joe Swan’s response to the economic strategy adopted by the previous council.

Not that he shouldn’t ask some hard questions; he should. But I was somewhat disconcerted that he would single out the educational component of the proposals, especially the one regarding the potential downtown Fanshawe College campus.

Two things bother me about his response: first, this was the proposal that I was most excited about and second, it is possible that he may have a conflict since the proposal contemplates a partnership with Orchestra London of which he is the executive director.

A little bit about the proposal.

Fanshawe College has outgrown its digs in the Citi Centre and is looking for a new home for its Theatre Arts Program and perhaps other programs as well depending on the availability of government funding. It is interested in locating downtown.

London has made a lot of investment in the downtown in the form of the Labatt Centre, the new central library, the market, and recently in moving its planning department into the former Capitol Theatre on Dundas Street.

Those projects, while controversial, have had significant impact on rejuvenating the downtown and attracting private sector investments. But it is clear to anyone who goes downtown that more is needed. There are too many empty storefronts and not enough people on the streets to create a busy city atmosphere.

What we do have are heritage buildings, great restaurants, a professional theatre, a symphony orchestra, a museum, small independent business owners and lots of arts groups and artists.

Could we not create an arts district in partnership with an educational institution to revitalize our downtown, restore and make use of our heritage buildings, attract workers and visitors alike, hold onto our talented youth after graduation, and generate a demand for goods and services to be supplied by existing and new businesses? Heck, maybe we could even get a grocery store downtown!

The proposal endorsed by Council was a long-term one, going beyond 2020. It would involve identifying space in a defined Education and Arts District in the downtown area for a School of Applied and Performance Arts. The City would assist with grants for renovating and retrofitting heritage buildings for this purpose as well as extending existing tax rebate programs for downtown renewal and heritage preservation to an educational institution.

A city needs a heart. A project like this could make it pump.

I remember what London was like when we had a core: Simpson’s, Eaton’s and Kingsmill’s and many other businesses. I lived downtown, shopped downtown, went to the movies downtown. I hardly knew where Byron was.

But times have changed. Shopping malls and PowerCentres with miles of free parking beckon our automobile dependent consumer society.

And jobs have changed too. Free trade agreements and globalization have claimed many of our well-paid unionized manufacturing jobs while giving us a plethora of cheap trinkets from low wage countries. People are becoming more interested in creative and experiential goods and services and creative, meaningful jobs.

The arts and culture are labour intensive. They will attract our talented youth who in turn will provide goods and services to a population of young and old who have tired of finding room for one more doodad. Housed downtown, they will attract more residents and visitors alike. We could have a real downtown again.

It won’t happen without the participation of the City. It is cheaper in the short run to build on the outskirts where land is cheaper and you can build from scratch.

But in the long run, it’s an investment in the heart of the city, in our environment, in our future. It has the potential to create assessment growth without new infrastructure and without paving over more agricultural land or cutting down trees.

A lttle different from building more warehouses along the 401.

I appreciate Joe's concerns about spending $67.8M on a variety of projects; that's a lot of money. But it is money that has been freed up as a result of the economic stimulus grants provided by the federal and provincial governments. A condition of that funding was that it not be used to reduce taxes, only to undertake economic development.

We are not talking about funding education; that is rightfully a provincial and federal responsibility. What we are proposing is a plan to revitalize our downtown, to retain our educated youth, and preserve our heritage. We have the partners and the plan. What is missing is the political will.

For a copy of the full report adopted by the previous council, click here.

1 comment:

Jason Recker said...

Well said! Totally agree. Making this happen downtown would benefit they city in so many ways.