If there’s anything supernatural about the much-ballyhooed ‘Moncton Miracle’, it’s that the city manages to thrive despite itself. That could be said about almost all successful municipalities, of course. But one look at this community’s downtown core, and you would not necessarily detect the urban energy and drive bubbling beneath the surface.
That, fortunately, may be changing. The city lifted the lid on its new plan at a public gathering at the Capitol Theatre last month, and the future of the downtown appears brighter than it has for years. As Mayor Dawn Arnold told the CBC, “We need to be intentional about that development,” she said. “We need to have a plan so that things work together. We need more people living in our downtown.”
Naturally, this is not the first time civic engineers and other assorted boosters have talked gamely about a downtown renaissance, within a broader economic development context. The city’s website currently carries this message attributed to Mayor Arnold:
“Earlier this year (2016), Moncton City Council participated in a strategic planning session to discuss priorities for the next four years. This session was key in helping Council to focus on our most significant issues, and shed light on what we must do to move Moncton forward. During our lively conversations, several key themes resonated loud and clear. We need to cut the red tape; we need to grow our economy; we need more economy. We must continue to leverage our existing investments and collaborate with our diverse private sector partners to make smart investments in the future. We are a community of dynamic entrepreneurs and skilled workers – we must take every opportunity to tap into the talent we have right here.”
Presumably, that means building and maintaining a vibrant downtown area. The fundamental problem, however, has had less to do with money and resources to get the job done than with a persistent, if not pervasive, ambivalence among some segments of city society. Even the late Reuben Cohen was a quiet sceptic. “I was born on top of a pool room in a cold-water flat on Main Street,” he told me a few years before his death, at 93, in 2014. “My father owned a grocery store next door to it. My mother would take me to Sunbeam bakery to buy cream puffs at five cents a pop. That was amazing. The big-wigs in the city would always head downtown to get their daily shaves at the barbershop. That was, I believe, 15 cents a pop.”
Still, he averred, “You can’t compare one time with another. You can’t compare an age when the only commercial games in town were, in fact, located downtown, with an age when cars and trucks take so many people so far away for their shopping and eating. That’s just the way things happen.”
Discussions about downtown cores always provoke existential debate. Should they cater primarily to pedestrians or drivers? How much and what type of parking should be available. Who constitutes the target market: businesses and office workers or cultural organizations and urban dwellers?
In fact, healthy, thriving downtowns typically accommodate all modes of life, work and transportation. That is the essential challenge of crafting a city’s personality beyond the big box stores, shopping plazas, strip malls and triple-lane expressways that make the outskirts of Fargo, North Dakota – visually, at any rate – no different than Halifax, or St. John’s or even Moncton.
As a fan of bustling urban cores, I’m heartened by this city’s latest attempt to reinvent its own for new generations of residents.