Despite Efforts, Government Has Not Yet Killed Downtown

Right now many Haligonians are afraid for the future of the heart of our city.  “Barrington Street looks like a war zone!” some cry.  “No new commercial buildings of note in two decade!” proclaim others.  “There is not enough parking!” say still others.

There was even less parking than usual on Friday night, rather, there was fear, anger, miss-communication, and clear signs why the downtown we prize so highly is in danger of being undone by thoughtless bureaucracy and in-effective political leadership.

Around eight in the evening that night, a local journalist and media personality tweeted “HRM is helpfully shutting down downtown…duh.”

Moments later  “Grafton st closed to parking as is Argyle from Duke to Prince. Helpful for Friday night business. No cops or politicos seem to know why” was added.

Was it the Bluenose Marathon?  Why hadn’t local businesses been given notice?  How long would it last?  The Mayor did not know, nor did the Councilor for downtown, but over the next couple of hours the story slowly came out through emails, Twitter, and Facebook.

Some of the street closure had been planned a long time.  While the marathon was the reason for the closure of Grafton, closures on and around Argyle were for the Jesse Stone film.  The film production needed space for technical parking and filming on Friday, and to film on Saturday.

This kind of thing happens, but the restaurants, bars and shops on Blowers, Prince, Agryle and Grafton have said clearly to HRM, again and again – don’t shoot on the weekend, give adequate notice.  Neither happened this weekend.

Why are these small business people so angry?    “It means eliminating something like at least fifty prime parking spaces for our district. My business was off about $2,000 for a normal Friday night. Don’t know what happened to everyone else but I do know everyone is very pissed” said one irate bar owner.

Bars and restaurants pay rent seven days a week, but usually make the most revenue on the weekend nights.  Losing parking and interfering with the normal function of the restaurant district on the weekend hurts a quarter of their monthly earnings.

Another restaurateur added “What is most frustrating in this situation is the lack of communication so that we could at least provide our clientele enough time to plan for parking or make different arrangements such as taxi cabs.”

No notice means no chance to adapt, to use social & other media to message their clientele about dealing with parking or other difficulties.

This unplanned for parking suspension comes on the heels of a difficult couple of years for downtown business.

Restaurants and bars are still struggling out of the business challenges caused by the recession. Tax rates might not be going up, but the tax bill is.

Despite a mild winter, the winter parking ban was in full effect, keeping people away from the core.  Just a few months ago, private contractors started to ticket and tow cars parked these same streets with no notice whatsoever, famously walking in to restaurants on the strip at 3pm and announcing “move your car in 20 minutes or it’s being towed.”

Contrast filming with street closure. HRM has a strict policy around street closure, where event organizers are required “to obtain permission from all businesses and residences (abutters) within each street closure, providing them with the following information in order that the abutters may make an informed decision.”

The contrast couldn’t be starker.  To close a street for a community festival or street party, you need permission from everyone affected and review by staff.  The application process can take weeks, or months.

This application to remove parking and move large trucks and film production into downtown took an email to a city staffer two days before the streets were needed.  Even so, the film production crew are required by HRMs Film Guidelines to notify affected businesses and others 48 hours in advance, which is difficult when permission is given just two days before.

Local businesses remained in the dark until Borque Security started putting out pylons and taking away parking spots.

The downtown we prize so highly is under threat, and much of the threat is coming from HRM’s government.   Taxes, fees, regulations, lack of services, being taken for granted – these problems, created by government, are not new, but to continue happening year after year sends a clear statement that is hard for these beleaguered entrepreneurs to ignore.

The message to struggling restaurant and bar owners is that HRM has more important things to do than supporting downtown businesses that are employers, destinations, and create that “downtown vibe” 365 days a year.

“NSLC price increases, patio fee increases, furious parking enforcement, property tax assessment increases, etc, with little to no service. We just keep taking it on the chin” said one angry restaurateur.  “It’s got to stop, and soon, or there won’t be anywhere for the tourists to go pretty soon. Mark my words.”

Our downtown, with its prized bar and restaurant culture, is now an endangered species.  Failure  to deal with all these issue promptly and firmly will move Halifax farther down the path toward having a classic American style downtown, empty and lifeless.

Late Friday night, it was tweeted that the Mayor was “taking this very seriously”. After a decade as Mayor, during which problems such as this have only gotten worse, it is simply hard to believe anything really will change.

This article was revised at 9:30 am on Tuesday, May 24, 2010

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