Downtown Fort William – A Diamond in the Rough

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Ford Mustang at Fort William Fall Street Festival
Ford Mustang

Signs of Change Coming in Downtown Fort William

THUNDER BAY – EDITORIAL – Downtown Thunder Bay South – Fort William is a diamond in the rough. While millions of dollars have been spent across the city to improve infrastructure, the downtown Fort William neighbourhood remains opportunity-central with many spaces available for new businesses. That aging diamond needs some cutting and polishing to be sure, but likely now after many years there are signs of positive change.

There has been a long-term effort over the past several years to clean-up the downtown. That effort has come from community groups, the city, the Crime Prevention Council, and the Fort William business community along with the Rotary Shelter House.

There are a number of really secret hidden gems downtown. The small park on the north-side of Victoriaville off Justice Lane offers a quiet spot to relax over a coffee. Kam River Park has undergone a real renewal. The lights have been repaired, the sewer has been repaired. People are starting to come down to the park again to stroll, enjoy and relax.

The Red Bicycle on May Street has grown. This fall the Hub and Bears Landing will open on Victoria Avenue East.
The Red Bicycle on May Street has grown. This fall the Hub and Bears Landing will open on Victoria Avenue East.

There are new businesses opening in the downtown. A sure sign that change is coming perhaps are coming via the growing number of coffee shops coming into the area. Long-time favourite New York Sub on Brodie Street, the three Robin’s Donuts, and the up comer Renaissance Cafe are about to see the Thunder Centre, and Upshot Coffee open up.

The Thunder Zone will feature coffee and healthy drink choices at the corner of May and Victoria
The Thunder Zone will feature coffee and healthy drink choices at the corner of May and Victoria

The Thunder Centre is replacing a cheque cashing operation which perhaps is a solid indication of positive change.

For many people, the biggest impediment to success downtown remains Victoriaville Mall.

The aging and leaking structure that has chopped downtown streets apart, in a community where people like to drive to their destinations is a prime example of an idea that needs to be given up on. Taking down the roof, and opening up downtown Fort William to business is an idea whose time has come.

There are some who feel that Victoriaville could be re-purposed but that still require the leaky roof to be repaired. The City of Thunder Bay has reported that keeping Victoriaville open as it currently stands would cost almost $10 million over the coming decade. Tearing down the roof is estimated to cost about $8 million.

Reopening downtown to traffic and opportunity and saving money at the same time seems to be a far smarter solution.

Rain buckets in Victoriaville are a regular sight in the facility whenever it rains.
Rain buckets in Victoriaville are a regular sight in the facility whenever it rains.

There could be other options, but at a public meeting earlier in the summer, those were the two options presented by the city. The debate in the downtown between business owners seems mostly toward taking the structure down. Perhaps the City could work to assist the remaining businesses in the mall and single business in the food court with relocation?

At some point, the repairs just to keep the aging structure up are going to be more than the effort to keep it up. Making a bold decision to replace the structure now is a wiser move.

While the downtown Port Arthur neighbourhood has become Thunder Bay’s Entertainment District, downtown Fort William has become the centre for civic government and for legal affairs. The Courthouse has the potential to serve as a possible business magnet with lawyers locating nearby. That is where the opening of so many coffee houses downtown points to positive change. Obviously there is change coming, and business people are getting ahead of the curve to be well positioned.

The Royal Edward Arms - Progressing to a new life in downtown Fort William
The Royal Edward Arms – Progressing to a new life in downtown Fort William

Work on the Royal Edward Arms continues as the historic building moves forward toward a proposed hotel. Already work is underway at the back of the hotel to put in a deck and fence in the parking lot.

The Rotary Shelter House has become, in recent months, far more engaged in the neighbourhood. From organizing clean ups, to moving forward on a new cultural program, to halting some of the past practices that seemed to cause problems, Gary Mack and his team are headed in what increasingly looks like a far better direction.

So what is needed?

There are good steps happening. In recent weeks taking Indigenous Culture into downtown has started. During the last Full Moon a gathering of women for a Full Moon Ceremony complete with drumming and singing brought a very positive atmosphere to Kam River Park.

Thunder Bay could and should be encouraging the cultural changes in the downtown.

Business wise, perhaps generating greater opportunities and incentives could be a move to bring the downtown back to life. Nishnawbe-Aski Development Fund, located in the Centennial Square could put a solid focus on encouraging new business start-ups downtown.

There are a fair number of empty buildings downtown. Those represent opportunities for entrepreneurs and the City of Thunder Bay should be working with the Ontario Government toward building a business action zone downtown to encourage and keep businesses going.

The signs of change are showing. Energy toward more positive change can bring back our downtown Fort William to some of its former glory.

All it is going to take is some positive energy and effort.

James Murray

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