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Putting life into Sudbury’s downtown

Attracting people to live downtown is part an urban strategy to revitalize downtown Sudbury. To provide those living spaces, Sudbury’s Dalron has invested in the downtown, hoping to start a trend of condominium living in the city’s core.
Sudbury DT 1
Susan Thompson, founder and managing director of Sudbury's Downtown Village Development Corporation, says she's witnessing unparalleled cooperation between local stakeholders.

Attracting people to live downtown is part an urban strategy to revitalize downtown Sudbury. 

To provide those living spaces, Sudbury’s Dalron has invested in the downtown, hoping to start a trend of condominium living in the city’s core.

"Whether it be five years, 10 years, whatever the case may be, for downtown Sudbury to catch on and it becomes an urban place to live and a cool place to live - we want to be at the forefront of that and make sure we're ready for that change," says Meghan Sutherland, condominium sales and marketing for Dalron.

Dalron is converting the Martin Insurance Building and Sudbury Steam drop-off into a 13-unit condominium, with 650-square-foot one-bedroom suites, and 1,100-square-foot two-bedroom suites. Parking and a common area on the roof with green space are included in the unit price, which ranges from $200,000 to $289,000.

As of mid-August, three units were sold. Sutherland expects the first unit to be occupied in late December and is hopeful the building will be completely occupied by summer 2011.

But revitalization of a city core that has slowly been drained of life over 40 years requires time and a multi-pronged strategy that goes beyond apartments and restaurants.

Susan Thompson began her own attempts at fixing up downtown by pulling weeds out of flowerbeds. Now she is founder and managing director of the Downtown Village Development Corporation (DVDC), and co-founder of Imagine Sudbury.

To some, it may seem like revitalization has not gone far, but that's on the surface, says Thompson. She sees a lot of collaboration among stakeholders who believe the downtown is important.

"I've never seen it as vibrant and alive as it is now. It doesn't matter where you go; everybody is downtown."

Still, in a wide-ranging interview about downtown revitalization, Thompson's frustration was often palpable. Gains have come slowly, though she remains optimistic. She is now looking for the political will to make it all happen.

In July, the city committed $72,500 for a Downtown Vision, Plan and Action Strategy. FedNor invested $122,500 and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund chipped in with $50,000. Thompson hopes the study will create the political will to get moving on downtown-focused priorities. After all, DVDC has been advocating for many years for a downtown master plan, Thompson says.

"With so many wonderful projects going on, it seemed that patchwork decisions were being made without the context of the whole. A master plan will address the holistic picture and will lay out priorities for investment over the next 10 years so that everybody's projects are synthesized. That's important."

Those involved in the downtown talks will often speak of the bottleneck that amalgamation created when it turned Sudbury into the largest city in Ontario by area. It has effectively stalled any forward movement on downtown revitalization, Thompson says.

In order to get city council on board, DVDC has met individually with councillors to prioritize expenditures in what Thompson calls the city's historic core.

"We've found this has been a very successful approach. There are real issues in the outlying communities; however, with the status quo, nobody is getting anywhere."

The problems seem to arise when the DVDC and others offer solutions to downtown issues.

Thompson says the DVDC is focused on securing residential investment, working to clear hurdles like limited parking, and on creating incentives to help make residential conversion projects viable for the project sector, such as renovations to upper stories of existing downtown buildings.

Some municipalities offer financial incentives to stimulate private-sector investment.

"We have studied cities all across Canada and this is how many have managed to get their residential kick started."

So far, little support has been seen from the municipality for a similar plan, she says. In another example of frustration, a downtown streetscape project is struggling for breath and attention at city council.

The DVDC is working through one phase of the streetscape that will be a demonstration project on Durham Street. This phase will feature new bike racks, benches, and waste receptacles. One small but visible victory comes in the form of new street signs which adorn what Thompson calls Sudbury's historic downtown core.

New lighting is coming at some point this September on Durham Street; as funds come available, more lighting will be added around downtown.

"Improved lighting will hopefully add to the character of the downtown and improve the safety aspects," she says.

Safety also falls under the mandate of Downtown Sudbury, another of the many groups working to improve the downtown. The group has advocated for regular police foot patrols with two officers in the downtown around the clock, but that hasn't been forthcoming because of staffing issues, Thompson says.

"We know from studying other communities that a regular foot patrol works. So it's hard to not have that happen when we know it's a solution that works," says Thompson.

When speaking of revitalization, Thompson says it's important to ask what the downtown needs. Her list includes: people, amenities, streetscape items like lights, bike racks, benches, green space, a performing arts centre, and a French cultural centre.

A few years back, Bob Wygant, chair of Downtown Sudbury, bought a corner shop at Larch and Durham, creating La Boulangerie du Village café. He recalls the downtown Sudbury of the 1960s, when the city was thriving.

For Wygant, the biggest issue remains getting people back to the core. He points to the success of Ribfest, held on Labour Day Weekend, which attracted 45,000 people last year. Dalron president Ron Arnold says people have to get over the negative stigma that comes with downtown.

"It will take a little time. But when you think about it, look at the good restaurants we have downtown. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg? It happens together. People start coming and as people arrive, these businesses happen."