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Could Spring Street launch downtown into a new era of prosperity? (7 photos)

Almost three-quarters of its original budget has been clawed back. But pencils are being sharpened and preparations made for soldiering on with the idea of a downtown plaza
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The downtown plaza isn't dead.

True, the long-on-enthusiasm but short-on-specifics idea got much of the wind knocked out of its sails last month.

At its June 3 meeting, City Council agreed to siphon off $1.9 million of federal gas-tax money originally earmarked for the plaza and other downtown improvements, opting instead to complete the seriously over-budget Bay Street reconstruction.

That left just $600,000 for downtown improvements, down from the $2.5 million councillors had committed to spend one month earlier.

The plaza, a key recommendation made to the Sault last year by downtown development consultant Roger Brooks, is supposed to be a showpiece, drawing shoppers and tourists to Queen Street.

What kind of plaza can we build for $600,000?

Is it worth even trying?

At the Downtown Association and the Civic Centre, pencils are being sharpened and preparations made for soldiering on with the idea.

"I'm staying optimistic," says Downtown Association general manager Josh Ingram. "I think that council and the city really want to see this happen."

Ingram concedes that Bay Street needed to be rebuilt and his nose isn't out of joint that plaza money was diverted for that purpose.

"It's been needing to be done for a decade," he told his board of directors on June 12.

The night before, the Downtown Association had hosted an open house to try to keep the plaza idea moving forward with slashed funding.

"It might move the development phase on a little longer, but I'm not discouraged," Ingram told SooToday.

Ingram points to Meridian Place in downtown Barrie, a $2.5 million project that was launched with just $400,000.

It took about two and a half years to take Meridian Place from concept to completion, Ingram said.

"I'm not discouraged with this amount.... We have the potential to get the ball rolling. It's a good amount of money to start from. The BIA [business improvement area] in Barrie was able to raise $400,000 to $500,000 itself. It's going to have to be a team effort."

Ingram says possible plaza locations were discussed at last month's open house.

"Somebody had mentioned relocating the bus terminal and doing Dennis. Although I understand that kind of connective tissue and the idea of sprucing up that idea, my idea would be something that would connect the waterfront to Queen Street," he told SooToday.

The Roberta Bondar tent pavilion actually meets many of Roger Brooks' criteria for a successful plaza, with one exception: it's not immediately adjacent to Queen Street.

The popular pavilion doesn't benefit Queen Street businesses because a large government building separates them.

Ingram says there's a consensus downtown that any new pedestrian plaza needs to run from the waterfront to Queen.

There are limited ways to accomplish that.

Elgin Street, at the east end of Station Mall, might be one.

Ingram mentions the possibility of converting Spring Street into a pedestrian-friendly plaza.

Justus Veldman, owner of the Brewery Block where the Northern Breweries stack and bottle house stood until recently, likes that idea.

The Brewery Block Facebook page has been hinting recently of big things to come.

"Going to announce something awesome," the page said last month.

"How about a downtown centre for all of us to gather around? Or a space for cars to park for the day? Or a space that resembles the rebuild and very safe replica of the stack and our little bottle house? Or a Northern Brewery that encompasses that all?"

Veldman tells SooToday that he's planning a small residential development on the Spring Street site, and expects to announce details within about three months.

"Walkways and corridors are key to getting the city moving," he says. "It think it would be great to connect Queen Street to the water.....that would be very complimentary, a great thing for the downtown."

At City Hall, planning staff confirm they're looking at Queen-to-river concepts for the downtown plaza, but no decisions on a preferred route have been made so far.

"What I'd really like to see with this development, is to see that linkage between our beautiful waterfront and our downtown core," says Ingram.

"I know I want to see winter features. I would like to see built-in audio features. I'd like to see lighting. I think that if we go for it, we should go for broke. We kind of have a habit of doing 70 per cent of a job here,or whittling it down until the project is so finite in stature. I really think that if we were to do it, we should know that we should dig in and it might take a little longer if that's the case."

Roger Brooks says a successful downtown plaza takes three to seven years to build, depending on the project.




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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans six decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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