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Communities on the Move: Investment in North Bay's downtown showing early returns

Seven new businesses set up shop in the city's core with $9.8-million facelift almost complete
The City of North Bay is undertaking a $9.8-million revitalization project of its Main Street in the downtown. It's the first such project in nearly 40 years.

This fall, the City of North Bay will celebrate the completion of a $9.8-million, two-year refresh of the downtown main street, which is poised to bring new investment into the city’s core.

It’s been a long time coming for the Gateway City — nearly 40 years, in fact. That’s the last time the North Bay undertook a downtown revitalization project of this size.

But it’s just the most recent in a decades-long list of improvements that has resulted in “absolutely the most gorgeous downtown and waterfront in the province,” according to Mayor Peter Chirico, who conceded with a chuckle, “I’m a little biased.”​

The City of North Bay is undertaking a $9.8-million revitalization project of its Main Street in the downtown. It's the first such project in nearly 40 years. | Supplied/City of North Bay

​Plans to overhaul North Bay’s waterfront and downtown areas trace to the early 2000s when the city purchased 14 hectares (35 acres) of land from CN and CP Railways with a vision to rehabilitate the brownfield sites and connect the waterfront to the downtown.

In that time, the city has removed railway infrastructure, remediated contaminated land, built a pedestrian underpass, established parkland, added a carousel and kids’ train, and set up sports fields, among other projects.

With this latest initiative, surface infrastructure spanning five blocks in the city’s downtown is getting a facelift, including new interlocking brick roads and sidewalks, curbs and gutters, retaining walls, stairs, railings, benches, and lighting.

Underground infrastructure, including watermains, sanitary sewers and storm sewers, are being simultaneously repaired where needed.

Sudbury firm MCA Contracting Ltd. was awarded the contract in 2023.

Work began last spring, and about 90 per cent of the project has been completed to date. The entire venture is slated to be finished this fall, but Chirico said the community is already seeing benefits.

The city’s investment in the downtown has boosted the confidence of new entrepreneurs and investors who are rethinking their view of the core and betting on its future.

“We did half of the Main Street project last year, and upon opening, we saw a total of seven new businesses in that two-block area open. So that's good for our downtown; that's revitalizing our downtown,” he said.

“It's taking those unused, vacant locations and creating new spaces for people to shop, people to be entertained, people to eat — all of those things. And so I'm really pleased with which way the city's headed on that, and I know that our residents are as well.”

Despite the interruption to their businesses caused by the construction, downtown merchants are on board, too.

Katie Bevan, chair of the Downtown North Bay Business Improvement Area, said business owners had long lamented accessibility and safety issues in the downtown caused by crumbling infrastructure.

Sidewalks missing bricks, inadequate lighting, and disintegrating curbs were among the concerns they observed on a daily basis. In some cases, it became a safety issue as people were tripping and falling while walking along the sidewalks.

“For accessibility, and safety, and maintenance, it was a no-brainer from what we witnessed,” said Bevan, who is also the owner-operator of The FARM, a downtown retail outlet that prioritizes selling Canadian-made apparel, art and home goods.

“It’s an investment in our downtown that is just over $9 million — it’s a big project.”

Because of the city’s foresight in planning, downtown merchants were given plenty of notice ahead of time about the scope and duration of construction, she noted.

Initially, the project was scheduled to get underway in the spring of 2022. But Bevan said the city and the contractor were receptive when merchants requested a year-long delay to allow them to regain their footing after a rough three years due to the COVID pandemic.

Since then, the parties have been open and transparent with merchants about the process, enabling them to adjust their buying and marketing efforts accordingly.

“The construction company, and the city, and the BIA, we all meet weekly, and it has been unreal,” she said. “The communication is really, really, really good, and so out of the situation, I feel like it’s the best it could have been.”​

The City of North Bay is undertaking a $9.8-million revitalization project of its Main Street in the downtown. It's the first such project in nearly 40 years. | Supplied/City of North Bay

​Like other downtowns across the North, Bevan said North Bay’s core has not been immune to growing social challenges, like an increase in homelessness and the number of people struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

But she’s optimistic that this new investment will boost a sense of safety among local shoppers, tourists, and other visitors, encouraging them to return more often.

“North Bay is just geographically so beautiful and it’s right close to the water; we have so much potential,” Bevan said.

“We’re starting to see people of all ages coming in, investing and buying up buildings and fixing them up, and I do think this city investment was a catalyst for some developers.”

One sector that’s poised to directly benefit is the film and TV industry, which has pinpointed North Bay as an ideal filming location in recent years, pumping millions of dollars into the local economy.

In addition to the aesthetic and safety improvements, electrical upgrades mean film and TV crews can access power without having to plug in to merchants’ businesses, and they can operate beyond regular business hours, giving them more flexibility in their schedules.

“Actors need places to stay, actors need places to eat, they want to be entertained; they’re here two, three months at a time, and they take advantage of our community, and they’re great investors for our community out there as well,” Chirico said.

“So, all of these little things combined, we keep trying to move that ball forward. And you know what? It’s working.”