During this week’s city council meeting, Coun. Rick Orr said that the City of Penticton, B.C., “gets it,” and that so far, Prince Albert doesn’t.
Orr was referencing downtown revitalization, with Penticton boasting a success story he’d like to see Prince Albert emulate.
Although the Prince Albert Downtown Improvement District Association shares many similarities with the Downtown Penticton Association, a big difference between the two cities of similar population bases comes with political will.
“You’ve got to get your city hall behind you,” Downtown Penticton Association executive director Kerri Milton said -- a sentiment Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton agrees with.
“When you get that urban sprawl, you lose that downtown, and it’s just too important to the community like us,” he said.
The following is a summary of how Penticton’s downtown core went from falling by the wayside to bustling.
Core services review
In 2009, the City of Penticton initiated a core services review in hopes of identifying cost savings measures within city operations.
“My dad said to look after your pennies and the dollars will follow, and that’s an attitude we’ve brought to the city,” Ashton said.
“We looked at every single operation with the City of Penticton, and by doing that it made us all the better.”
With everyone within the city coming to the table, 64 recommendations were made, of which the City of Penticton has followed through with about 60 so far, Ashton said.
It wasn’t easy, he added, with 31 people losing their jobs, but it freed up a lot of taxpayer dollars for major projects, of which improving the city’s downtown core is a significant one.
“It would have been easier if we just raised more money through taxation, but we’re working with what we had, and by being more proficient and proactive internally, that freed up more dollars.”
Although the city’s elected officials weren’t required to approve a budget until May of this year, theirs was set in stone before Christmas.
“We actually get better pricing, now,” Ashton said. “When other municipalities are putting out their bid rosters for the coming year in May -- that’s a busy time for construction companies, etc -- and now we’re able to get better pricing.”
Over the past three years, the City of Penticton hasn’t raised taxes, and during one year even reduced taxes by .5 per cent.
Penticton political will
Orr said that what Prince Albert needs is political will -- something Ashton said Penticton city council has when it comes to downtown improvement.
“Take the first step,” Ashton encourages Prince Albert city council. “Get together, get to the table, get that vision, and then take that first step.
“I’m one of seven votes, but we have a council that has worked very well together – not only together themselves, but with staff – and it makes a night and day difference.”
With Penticton’s downtown challenged by chain stores and urban sprawl, as Prince Albert’s is with places like the Cornerstone Shopping District, Penticton city council realized the importance of their role in improving downtown, Ashton said.
“Being frank, we put our money where our mouth is, and we’re re-investing in the downtown core,” he said.
Within their 2013 budget, which came with a zero per cent tax increase, Penticton council approved the following;
• An old bus maintenance facility be transformed into an “eclectic artisan market, fulfilling the need for grocery in the downtown area,” as city communications officer Simone Blais wrote in an email. This project will come at a cost of $160,000 to the city.
• Welcoming people downtown, $1.25 million was budgeted to refurbish a square block of downtown to let people know they’ve entered the city’s downtown core.
• The city is spending $75,000 on consultation, traffic analysis and design work to help inform budget needs in the years to come.
The city’s also undertaking “substantial” infrastructure work, Ashton said, including updated sewer and water systems.
“We’re bringing in all kinds of things, like wider sidewalks, better lighting, even things like nice garbage receptacles -- things that make it look nicer to be downtown,” Milton said.
Additional Penticton successes
Saturday market: Penticton’s downtown market runs every Saturday morning from May to October, shutting down traffic to the city’s entire downtown area.
“All of our downtown shops make a point of being open then and benefitting from all these people being downtown,” Milton said.
Attendance averaged around 15,000 people during these markets last year.
Crime and homelessness: Oftentimes, what draws people away from downtowns is criminal activity and homelessness, Mitlon said.
Combatting this in a proactive way, a survival guide has been put together in Penticton and passed on to anyone in need.
“It’s just a small little black book that goes out to the street people, as well as all the harm groups, to help people find places to go,” Milton said.
My dad said to look after your pennies and the dollars will follow, and that’s an attitude we’ve brought to the city. - Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton
The Downtown Penticton Association meets with the RCMP every week for updates on criminal behavior in the downtown area.
Just before Christmas, a downtown business was robbed. In response, the Downtown Penticton Association immediately sent an email blast to its membership of 780 with a description of the suspect and what happened.
“We try to keep them connected and combat it before it gets worse,” Milton said.
It appears to be working, she added, with only one minor item noted during this week’s meeting with the RCMP.
Economic Incentive Zones: The City of Penticton has placed Economic Incentive Zones in the city’s downtown area in hopes of attracting businesses.
Those constructing a new business downtown or making significant renovations to a current building can apply for the program, which forgives the municipal portion of taxation for up to five years.
So far, nine projects have gone forward because of these zones, Ashton said, including a seven-screen cinema.
“We are saying ‘hey, we are open for business. We want you here, and here’s what we’re prepared to do.’”
Looking to the future
Downtown Penticton still comes with its challenges, Milton said, noting that they’ve yet to figure out how to encourage businesses to stay open later in the night.
With money always tight, Ashton said that their work downtown is a multi-year phased-in project, and that “It’ll be beautiful when it’s all done.”
Having found success with their core services review, Penticton has opened up their formula to the public, with fellow B.C. city Prince George currently taking on a review of their own.
Last year in Prince Albert, Coun. Lee Atkinson put forth a motion that the City of Prince Albert look at an efficiency review -- an effort that he said this week he hopes to see gain traction in the near future.
Every city that looks at downtown revitalization does so with municipal investment, Orr said, which is accompanied by stakeholder support.
“We’re tight budgets,” he noted. “I haven’t hit the budget process, but I understand that I’ll learn that there isn’t money for anything, so if there is a desire to do this downtown, then we have to figure out how.”