The philosopher George Santayana once said “Those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them in the future”. I hate to get all Chadwickian on you all but I believe the above statement very much applies to many aspects of our town.
The following EB article was written by Marg Scheben-Edey back in May 2001 it makes interesting reading 12 years later, because obviously not much has changed:
Message to Downtown Collingwood Merchants: A powerful locomotive is heading full speed down the track and you are in its path. Please remove your blindfolds and re-route immediately.
While basking in the glow of a healthy economy and the prospect of another million plus visitors a year coming soon, our downtown merchants have failed to notice that they (and therefore we) have a problem. Several problems actually and they are about to be magnified big time. I don’t want to sound apocalyptic but it’s best to fear the worst and wake up to the unsettling realization that things downtown have to change and change fast. And we’re not talking about tearing down historic buildings here. We’re talking about the big fat gap between what the merchants think and what is real. Let’s start with the findings of a recently completed study of the downtown, its shoppers and its merchants.
Shoppers said the biggest strengths were the appearance of the downtown and its storefronts, easy access for pedestrians and the low cost of parking. The issue of parking availability was 50/50 with half seeing it as a strength and half as a weakness. What consumers did say loud and clear was that the biggest weaknesses downtown were around traffic flow and most of all, the lack of variety and selection. Their top three suggestions for improving the downtown were 1) improve customer service, 2) improve the infrastructure (rest areas, fountains, accessibility, cleaning, etc) and 3) improve the parking situation. (If I had been surveyed, I would have said the thing that bugs me most is when a waiter or clerk asks, “How are youse guys? Us’s is jus’ fine, thanks for asking.)
Merchants on the other hand, felt the only singular weakness downtown was the lack of variety of entertainment facilities. Also, even though the study found that the vast majority of people who come downtown do so for a non retail purpose (banking, insurance, office), 75% of retailers thought these uses should be moved off of the main street. Hmmm. The study uncovered this treat too: there are 24 different combinations of store hours! No wonder I get confused of who is open when and on which day.
Only 6.5% of the merchants saw customer service to be a problem. That explains so much! If shoppers think they are doing a lousy job yet the merchants themselves think they are doing a good job, why would they train their staff any differently? Almost all merchants do their staff training in-house. Gee, what a surprise. Recently, the Downtown Collingwood/BIA Association together with the Georgian Triangle Economic Development Corporation, organized a two day “Hometown Proud” seminar aimed at customer service and retention. It was heavily subsidized bringing the cost of the two evening training sessions including dinners to $40.00 per person. Other than BIA Directors, guess how many people signed up? Two. That’s one less than three. Unbelievable. Shameful.
How about the BIA annual meeting held in April? Again, other than directors and politicians, 7 or 8 people (yes, now that they are out of the political party games such as OMB hearings, I was one), were in attendance. This is a body who administers funds that affect all merchants and the rest of us too. Trees, flower barrels, street lamps, garbage and recycling bins, parking lot landscaping – all those things that add to the appearance we cherish are managed by this group in whole or in partnership with the Town. New directory kiosks have been designed, special events are co-ordinated, cross promotions, collective marketing, advocacy and, representation on studies and committees all fall within their mandate. How in heavens name can over 90% of the downtowners chose not to participate even though they are paying taxes toward it??? Maybe you have some good reasons but, get over it.
One thing we learned through the Vision 2020 study was that downtowns could either suffer or prosper in climates of tremendous resort growth nearby. The difference between succeeding or failing had a great deal to do with cohesion, collective determination and effort. Customer service is a biggie but so are the physical environment, traffic, retail mix and the general shopping experience you can give to consumers. We’ll talk about the shopping experience next week but before then, I hope each merchant will think long and hard about what they will individually do to contribute to the success of the downtown and therefore to their own success. Read your BIA newsletter, go to a meeting, look at your customer service skill set and that of your staff. Look at your hours, your marketing, and the appearance of your store front. Make a scorecard. Then think about how you can start working together with your neighbours. Your future depends on it. If you don’t think this applies to youse guys, then stay on the track. The caboose will getcha.
Intrawest uses some really cool words that have easily become part of my vocabulary and maybe you’ll like them too. One is “imagineering” and the other is “animating.” Let’s take a page from their book and have some fun this week. Let’s imagineer a redesign of the downtown. Well, not really redesign it so much as change how it feels. Let’s figure out ways to animate the downtown to create a fabulous shopping experience that will make people want to be there.
Former town councilor Betty Smith once said to me that Intrawest was creating an artificial Olde Ontario Town but in Collingwood, we had the real thing. She was so right. Intrawest understands that Heritage tourism is big business. If we could all agree to start from that premise, then our little imagineering game will go much easier. So, imagine this….
Where there were once empty and run-down apartments, light filled lofts now grace the upper floors downtown. People lean out their windows to watch the goings on or to call out a friendly greeting to a neighbour. Heritage conservation has been successful and our restored buildings are a source of pride to us all. Gone are the dumpsters in the alleyways behind the stores. Now, enchanting little courtyards built of stone, trees and benches greet the eye. Low grilled iron work fences and cobblestone pathways lead to nooks and crannies that have become both entrances to homes and to petite boutiques. Downtown residents take baskets in arm to visit the cheese shop, the bakery, the butcher and grocer. Marketing has become a daily pleasure. With interesting sculptures and many tree-shaded benches dotting the downtown, people now love to linger. People laze about near the fountain in the Town Square where the flowers could only be described as artistry in nature. Where once muzak bleated out of the speakers, now strolling minstrels, afternoon jazz quartets, jugglers, mimes and other buskers bring a smile to faces and hearts. A cappuccino cart complete with a cheerful costumed Vendor winds is way up and down the street. Once dead and unused spaces have become fascinating places. For example, the rock-climbing wall on the side of an old building attracted so many interested passers by that a café opened across the street. Cultural icons that used to be an arms stretch from the core, now feel connected to the downtown. Trails and the trolley route together with co-ordinated street signage and streetscapes now make the library, community theatre, museum and welcome centre part of the downtown. Big box stores don’t belong here. They are great out in the west part of town. Downtown is about people connecting. We have unique giftshops, antiques and trinkets, books, art galleries and ice cream parlours. We have coffeehouses, café’s and local hangouts that really rock at night. This is an animated and lively downtown. It is so amazing that tourists look around for some reassurances that it is all real.
That’s what’s in my imagination. What’s in yours?
A downtown is a community’s heart and really, a sort of physical expression of a collective vision. To get it done, we need to start with a new spirit of co-operation between businesses, property owners, politicians and citizens. We need downtown champions. Things like this don’t happen by themselves. We need to start by preserving our cultural heritage, by promoting strong design guidelines, by finding funds for building restorations, apartment renovations, signage changes and, to build those courtyards. We need to bring life downtown by making it people friendly, welcoming and engaging. Could we get started please?