Thunder Bay Bashing? Heck No!

A good Samaritan or a forgotten jacket? At Minus 30c in Thunder Bay one hopes it is a kind soul.
A good Samaritan or a forgotten jacket? At Minus 30c in Thunder Bay one hopes it is a kind soul.

A good Samaritan or a forgotten jacket? At Minus 30c in Thunder Bay one hopes it is a kind soul.
A good Samaritan or a forgotten jacket? At Minus 30c in Thunder Bay one hopes it is a kind soul.

Facing Up to Thunder Bay Realities Will Solve Problems

THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay bashing? That is a response that has been made to news articles on the conditions in the downtown Fort William business core. Over the past year, NetNewsLedger had documented the neighbourhood, and often in our editorials pointed out what is really going on. All of the pictures we have posted are real. There is no set up, no moving around of stuff to make a better image. That would be wrong.

Realizing that Thunder Bay has problems, owning up to those problems, and then working to solve those problems is a path to success.

Calling those who call for change “Thunder Bay Bashers” is a sure path to maintain the status quo!

There are some who are very uncomfortable with that approach.

Some of those call it Thunder Bay Bashing.

My view is that white washing over problems, or pretending that they are not there is a sure path to failure. Or it is a means of maintaining the current status quo.

Northern Ontario Business - A view of how others see us here in Thunder Bay South
Northern Ontario Business – A view of how others see us here in Thunder Bay South

Failure, or the status quo are options that the City of Thunder Bay and all our residents should reject.

A recent article by Ian Ross in Northern Ontario Business where Ross toured the downtown. covering Brodie Street, Victoria Avenue East, and the Kam River Park has presented a view from outside. (Full Disclosure: Mr. Ross and I walked the area for his story)

Northern Ontario Business in their article show that there are challenges in the area. The article also highlights that there are many bright spots and that there is optimism.

Root Root Root for the Home Team?

Often some in our community it seems would prefer that some of the harsher facts in our city be kept out of the media spotlight. That is likely the reason some of the problems that fact Thunder Bay are still here.

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game. 

Mayor Keith Hobbs, and Westfort Councillor and Police Services Commission Chairman Joe Virdiramo have said that the downtown Fort William area is a “ghetto”.

Westfort Councillor Virdiramo
Westfort Councillor Joe Virdiramo

Those are very hard terms, and those terms likely make some cheerleaders very uncomfortable. The hard truth is that until there are admissions that there are problems and issues to fix, solving them won’t happen.

It takes political courage to stand up and tell it like it is. For that Mayor Hobbs and Councillor Virdiramo deserve a loud Thank You!

In my opinion, simply trying to brush problems under the carpet isn’t going to solve them.

There is Positive Change Happening!

There is positive change happening in the downtown Thunder Bay south. First, there are several news businesses that have opened, or expanded in the area.

The Blue Door Bistro on Syndicate Avenue has plans to expand, and they have gained support from the Ontario Government. The Red Bicycle on May Street under the energetic effort of Lori Paras brings some needed eclectic style to May Street. Antiques on Victoria Avenue has opened this fall. There are several positive signs in the area, as a new medical office is planned across from the new provincial courthouse.

There are more sold signs starting to show up in the area too.

In many cases, what is happening are younger “Outsiders” as one director of the Fort William BIA has called them on Facebook, are starting to move into the area. Rather than accept the status quo, their energy and that of their friends is powering up change.

Resisting change and innovation is a losing battle. Change always wins.

What are the Solutions?

Shorter term solutions are happening. The City of Thunder Bay is stepping up snow clearing efforts in the Fort William BIA. Busting pathways through the snowbanks will make it easier for customers to get to the businesses. It is not the full solution, which is heading to a ‘big city solution’ and removing the snow banks all together, but it is a solid start.

Brian Hamilton, President of the Bay Algoma BIA has been stopping in the Fort William Business District BIA and shovelling out pathways in the snow banks. Hamilton commented that one of the things needed is “more brooms and shovels”. Stepping up across the area needs combinations of help between the businesses, and the city.

The Fort William BIA

The Fort William BIA is, for the most part doing as much as they can. The annual Street Festival continues to improve. The annual tree lighting is an inspiring night of fun that attracts a growing crowd.

If there are issues, perhaps it is in messaging and communications strategies. Tina Huk the BIA Co-ordinator is stepping up and doing much more and that is a very positive sign. A solid communications strategy will likely improve the ability of the Fort William BIA to engage more with the community. Some of the BIA Directors, from what business owners tell NNL seem more combative than supportive. There are real benefits to a solid communications plan.

On social media, one of the Directors went so far as to call people who have opened new businesses in the Fort William BIA “Outsiders”… That remark reflects one of being a closed club, and that is certainly not what the BIA is mandated under provincial legislation. A BIA must be inclusive not combative.

Shelter House

Shelter House is a big part of the solution. First off, they are working to establish a cold weather program with the assistance of City Hall. It will likely save lives this winter. It should be important to note that Shelter House is likely the source, for many of the businesses in the Fort William downtown of much of the revenues for the restaurants, cafes, and food court.

Community activist Kim Coreau says, “A neighbourhood walk with a security guard would be good, more nurses without borders, on the streets, an actual mental health facility, a bigger and safer shelter, are also ideas that could be implemented!”

Coreau adds, “I love this city, but there are problems, and we need to face them, not ignore them, or minimize them”.

Perhaps the real message is those who prefer their Thunder Bay with rose coloured glasses are the real problems. In Thunder Bay we have to realize that “Denial is a river in Egypt”, not a way of life.

Bringing in more business

The City of Thunder Bay should be putting in place a Downtown Neighbourhood Revitalization Task Force. The mandate should be directing funds and efforts toward bringing in new businesses, assisting building owners in revitalizing their buildings, and in general improving business conditions in the downtown.

The Province of Ontario should be stepping up and putting in place the needed funds for that.

More Low Income Housing

The downtown and the Simpson Street drive-by could be the site for more low income housing. Perhaps a combination of efforts including the City, Habitat for Humanity, and private foundations would really help.

The efforts on Victoria Avenue East by Habib Architects in revitalizing a building into retail and housing has been supported by all three levels of government. It is a great start. Downtown needs people. Having more residents living in the area will attract more business to be open later, and that will help reduce problems.

Alcohol and Gaming Commission

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission needs to step up even more than it currently has. There are still too many alcohol fuelled incidents in the downtown. Bluntly put the response time is still way too long. All one has to do is look at the number of incidents that Thunder Bay Police have dealt with in the downtown that are alcohol related, and one wonders what the Alcohol and Gaming Commission is doing.

Conclusions

There are solutions. What is needed are all the partners in the area, the province, the city, the BIA, the Chamber of Commerce, businesses and residents to all step up and insist that the problems are solved.

Those who choose to remain in denial, well, in my view they need to be left behind. The solutions so desperately needed have been delayed by those who don’t like the stark reality.

If seeking solutions is seen as ‘Thunder Bay Bashing” then simply ask yourself how the status quo is making things better?

Over the past five years, overall not a lot has changed. The impetus for change is now.  Those wearing rose-coloured glasses have had their changes to show how to improve the area. The results speak so loudly that the fact new ideas and new directions are needed is obvious.

Mayor Hobbs, Councillor Virdiramo and City Manager Tim Commisso are already on board. Now it is time for the rest of us.

James Murray

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