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Sault’s downtown association back on track

Revitalization, value for members included in strategic plan
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Three years after a dissenting group of members took to task the Sault Ste. Marie Downtown Association (DA) for lack of transparency and accountability, things seem to be back on track for the organization.

In 2015, a handful of members launched a process under the Municipal Act to have the association disbanded, causing the group to re-examine its priorities and elect a new board to start fresh.

Now, with a strategic plan in hand, approved in 2017, the group has set out its new priorities to help move forward the revitalization of the downtown.

Bryan Hayes, who serves as chair of the group’s board of directors, expressed optimism about the future of the organization, and that of the city, during the group’s annual general meeting on Feb. 27.

“I think we’re all, right now, for the first time that I can ever remember, pointing very much in the same direction and right direction,” said Hayes, a former member of parliament for the Sault.

“The partnership right now between the Downtown Association, the mayor’s office, the City of Sault Ste. Marie, and city council is as strong as it’s ever been.”

Josh Ingram, who was hired as the DA’s general manager in 2016, noted that the revitalization of the downtown was identified as a key priority in a report prepared in November by the city’s Community Adjustment Committee.

The committee was formed as an attempt to strengthen and diversify the city’s appeal in light of the steel plant’s creditor protection process, which has been underway since 2015.

“It says this specifically: ‘A vibrant downtown is an important component of building a more attractive community for residents and businesses alike,’” Ingram noted. “‘We should ensure that we’ve focused on and prioritized the ongoing community efforts to re-establish our downtown as a vibrant core of our community.’”

“I think it’s fair to say that each and every one of us here with an investment downtown want to make sure that it is a vibrant and exciting place to visit,” Ingram added.

The implementation of recommendations from the committee are ongoing, but in the meantime, the DA is tackling smaller problems that plague the downtown.

In addressing concerns about downtown security, the DA is working with Sault Ste. Marie Police Services to increase patrols during evenings and is investing in graffiti removal equipment, which will be available for use by members this summer.

The association has also started placing a greater emphasis on its professional members, offering a series of roundtables on topics like succession planning to increase membership value for that sector, Ingram said.

On the other end of the scale, the association has committed $15,000 from its coffers toward a destination tourism assessment being commissioned by the city.

The proposal would have Roger Brooks International, a U.S.-based consultant, come to the Sault and assess the downtown’s  potential for residents, business and visitors. Under the plan, the Roger Brooks team would spend multiple days in the Sault, cruising the city, visiting attractions and accessing services, and at the visit’s conclusion, provide a report with a list of things the city can do to up its game, for residents and tourists.

Hayes said the city currently has a funding application in to the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. to offset some of the cost associated with the US$35,000 assessment.

“The whole purpose is to advance our strategic plan,” Hayes said. “Ultimately, we’re going to come with an end result that we believe will assist us in activating our downtown – creating a brand initiative, conducting a best practices review, developing a marketing plan, tourism services – all things that are in our strategic plan.”

Although it wasn’t unanimous, the association approved the expenditure, with members emphasizing their wish that the final report not just sit on a shelf, but be the start of real revitalization for the downtown.

Ingram said it’s these kinds of partnerships – with the city and with other stakeholders – that are helping to propel the downtown forward.

“I’m really optimistic for 2018,” Ingram said. “I keep telling people I’m just teetering on this cliff and I’m ready to take a dive in to being 100 per cent optimistic, because I am, and I’m optimistic of what is in store for our community.”