If we build it, will more be in store?

If a city measures its civic ambitions by the plans it makes for its downtown areas, then is Moncton poised for a new age of urban renewal?

We can boost and boast till all the pigeons fly their concrete coops along Main Street, but we must admit that the business core – stretching west to Vaughan Harvey Boulevard, east to King Street, north to St. George and south to Assumption Boulevard – has not always reflected the broader community’s tough, entrepreneurial, sophisticated, technologically savvy, and culturally rich attitudes and endowments.

Too many store fronts remain shuttered, too many office spaces are begging for tenants, too many edifices exude that unpleasant aura of dissolution so familiar to urban planners the world over.

And that’s a problem because while other parts of the city can periodically languish without compromising the social and economic integrity of the whole, the downtown is the community’s commons. Its vibrancy electrifies the neighborhoods that surround it, just as its rot eventually spreads throughout the civic body.

Fortunately, we are in no immediate threat of contracting such municipal gangrene. A few years ago, Mayor George LeBlanc offered me a vigorous defense of Moncton’s progress. “Look at what has been happening in just the past five or 10 years,” he said. “In 1996, we had 8,000 people working in the downtown area. Today, we have 15,000. We’ve opened up a public Wi-Fi network, and we’ve seen quite a few high-tech companies doing big things locate in the downtown.”

He wasn’t wrong. In fact, progress is palpable today, even in the downtown, which plays host to thousands of businesses, bars, restaurants and cafes,18,000 office workers, and anywhere from 1,200 to 5,700 residents depending on how you fixes downtown “borders”.

Today, Moncton is a major Canadian customer contact and back office centre with a robust “near-shore” IT outsourcing industry. And it continues to leverage its success with a plan that calls for new partnerships with regional universities to deepen the region’s knowledge economy, diversify the IT economy, and actively promote tech-based entrepreneurship.

Still, a downtown is more than the sum of its moving parts. Like any good and growing garden, it requires constant attention and vigilance – even a little creative experimentation, from time to time.

As The Moncton Times & Transcript reported on Friday, the “proposed Downing Street restoration, a project in honour of Moncton’s 135th anniversary in 2015, is embracing four key themes – Downtown, Celebration, Art & Storytelling and Sustainability.”

The idea is to redevelop the dead-end street – between the Blue Cross complex and the McSweeney Block – that spills out into combined parking lots into an avenue down to the river. “This is an opportunity to explore every possibility,” Mr. LeBlanc said, referring to the plethora of planning options available to the city.

Some may question the value of the project on strictly economic grounds. Shouldn’t we spend our time and money of a downtown events centre? After all, we already expect that such a facility would draw 350,000 a year, generate about $14 million in spending and, in the words of economic development agency Jupia Consultants, “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown,” where it “should also support residential growth.”

Meanwhile, another report has estimated that the construction phase, alone, would generate $340 million worth of “economic impacts” for New Brunswick and other parts of the country, as well as nearly $17 million in taxes for the provincial and federal governments. Moreover, it indicated, sales from ongoing operations could easily reach $9.5 million in 2015 (assuming, of course, the centre is open for business by then).

Compared with this, critics may query, what does a road to the river offer?

That, of course, is the wrong question.

The marvelous thing about investing in urban infrastructure is the multiplier effect. Almost any beautification, redevelopment or expansion project yields new opportunities for others.

In this respect, the Downing Street initiative and an events centre complement one another. Both will encourage people to get into the happy and productive habit of spending time (and money) in (and on) our core, of forging the common bonds of community that, in fact, attract and keep industries, entrepreneurs and skilled workers.

In our capacious suburban homes where we park our cars and RVs, we would do well to remember that our downtown areas are not only the manifestations of our ambitions; they are also the means to those ends.

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