Thunder Bay Needs a Vibrant and Thriving Downtown Fort William

City Hall
City Hall in the middle of downtown Fort William

It is time to Revitalize Downtown Fort William

Thunder Bay – OPINION – As a teenager in Thunder Bay, living on the northside of the city, Fort William was the place to be. There were movie theatres, lots of restaurants, and some incredible shops in the downtown on Victoria Avenue, on May Street, and along Simpson Street.

Then came Victoriaville and the downtown just seemed to start downward.

Fast forward to right now. It is honestly sad to walk the streets of downtown Fort William. Today, walking downtown, on the west side of Victoriaville was a sign saying the food court was open. It was… not for seating, and in the post COVID-19 recovery there is only one business open in the food court. Both Robin’s locations are gone. It is a shell of what it was only five years ago. Heck it is a shell of what it was pre-pandemic.

Lots of empty buildings, broken windows, and for sale signs. Victoriaville for the most part is empty. There are three shops open in what once was Victoria Avenue – the rest of the businesses are in the buildings on the sides.

Drug use, and drug dealing is out in the open. So too is prostitution, and likely human trafficking as well.

The signs of despair are front and centre to be seen.

The NetNewsLedger offices used to be on Victoria Avenue, and for years in the downtown I thought I had seen it all. Today proved me wrong. People openly injecting drugs and openly selling only blocks from the Court House on Brodie Street. It made the old times of only back in 2015 seem mild by comparison.

Walking the streets for an hour, there wasn’t one police car to be seen. There were hardly customers flocking to shops and businesses in a commercial area of the city where those property owners are paying significant taxes to the city.

To me the area is one of massive opportunity. If there is the political will to act toward real change.

Over the years there has been a lot of talk, but there sure has not been a lot of visible action. There have been plans, but for the most part just plans. Action by the City seems far less critical.

That inaction has been hammered hard through COVID-19. All the gaps and all of the problems in our city have been made completely obvious to those who are willing to see reality.

Instead, the truth is we have heard nice words, we have seen little in the form of results.

How can Thunder Bay talk about a One City strategy and have a southside and northside united on a path forward when for all intents and purposes the southside downtown has been basically ignored and are somehow expected to deal with and solve the social problems on their own.

It is not like City Hall can’t see the problems. There is often crowds of homeless people sitting on the steps of the church right across the street. Lives where issues with addiction and poverty and the long-term impacts of residential school are front and centre.

To walk the streets, there is human excrement and usually socks in doorways. There are needles and broken glass, there are businesses with their windows papered over.

Our historic and once vibrant downtown has been knocked to its knees.

Business and property owners are trying hard to figure out how to survive, let alone get up.

Some have already given up. There are more empty storefronts than operating businesses across the downtown.

However, if there were real interest at City Hall, there are solutions.

A simple one would be an increased police presence in the downtown. Putting a community police station on the east side of Victoriaville would likely move the drug trade and the prostitution off.

There needs to be serious incentives in the downtown to get businesses into the area. Perhaps a reduced tax rate for new and existing business for the next five years?

While there are now plans to dismantle Victoriaville, during demolition there will be another summer season where the area won’t have the opportunity it could because of that construction.

Minister Rickford tells NetNewsLedger there are similar issues in post-pandemic recovery in cities and towns across Western and Northern Ontario.

Perhaps what is needed from the Ontario and Canadian governments is a Western and Northern Ontario Recovery Act?

What is going to be needed to rebuild the economy is support from governments. Businesses in the downtowns need the time and bluntly put the money to survive into 2022.

It is going to cost money? Absolutely. It may cost up to $100 million to get our region moving forward.

Thunder Bay Can Have a Vibrant Downtown Fort William Again

This video is from 2015 – all the promise is still there.

It likely means City Council along with senior levels of government need, working with business owners and unions to develop a plan to move into the future where our region can be strong again.

Frankly put however, the alternative is to see our downtown devolve into an economic disaster zone. It would see our downtowns become the turf of drug dealers, pimps, human traffickers, and see girls as young as 13 working on the streets.

The drug dealers and gangs who have invaded our city from Ottawa are cleverly shifting their business model. They were taking rooms in hotels, and taking over homes to sell their drugs. Now sources tell NetNewsLedger they have moved to let the seemingly smaller drug dealers working on the streets be the front for much of their death dealing of illegal drugs.

It is a situation that needs serious and immediate attention.

James Murray

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