A plan is under way to make Fort William a vibrant community centre once again.
By Leah Ching, Staff Writer.
The student community at Lakehead’s Thunder Bay campus is in many ways lucky to be situated in a North-western Ontario town, with a robust outdoors, an often-vibrant sense of community, and growing local shopping hubs scattered throughout the city. Still, Thunder Bay, a relatively young city, (only forty five years old) is home to residents who are particularly vocal about the areas they believe need more attention from city officials, and the areas that need to be improved as the city continues to grow and develop.
Thunder Bay, formerly two cities (Port Arthur and Fort William) and a few townships, is a place where clear distinctions exist between the two former cities.
Since 1910 and beyond, the idea of amalgamating the separate cities had been bought up repeatedly, but it was not until 1970 that the two cities would become one. Since 1958, when the second public vote was taken to determine those in favour of amalgamation and those against, the results were tight. In Fort William, the majority of constituents voted against amalgamation, with Port Arthur voting in favour of the proposed combining of cities, with votes “for” winning by only a small margin of 137.
Tensions still remain between both areas, with Fort William having an unpleasant reputation as a sub-par crime hub, an epicentre for violent crimes, poverty, vandalism, drug use, and public intoxication (just to name a few). Many impoverished citizens of Thunder Bay live in this region. With subsidized housing and shelters existing near the south core, Fort William and the downtown south core have gained a reputation for poverty and crime.
Millions have been funnelled into the project to revitalize the waterfront district in Port Arthur, near the historical Prince Arthur’s landing and the results are very commendable. This area is often frequented for walks, public events, gatherings, and local dining. Canada Day at the Marina regularly sees locals out by the thousands for fireworks, parades, and performances.
Unfortunately, the focus on certain areas has left others with the feeling they have been disregarded as they watch the parts of the city they inhabit fall to the wayside while other areas are consistently beautified and re-vamped with both public and private money.
Simpson Street in Downtown Fort William, while infamous for prostitution and drug use, also exists in an area filled with historic architecture. Local businesses are taking advantage of the cheap real estate and are striving to revitalize the run-down area.
Victoriaville Centre, in the heart of the south core, often falls under widespread criticism for becoming an indoor hub of loitering and unruly intoxicated citizens. However, it is also the seat of civic government. This bustling administrative hub of bureaucracy exists next door to law offices and boutique clothing stores.
Amidst widespread worry and complaints, this year, the City of Thunder Bay has launched a corporate strategic plan in response to citizens’ concerns over improving city plans and services.
This strategic plan entitled “Becoming our Best” which can be found online, outlines plans that include the following, “Better roads and more enhanced infrastructure investments. Cleaner, more beautiful streets and public spaces. More focus on addressing social issues such as the need for housing. Continued effort to diversify the economy.”
Part of this plan includes investing in revitalizing the downtown cores, including implementing recommendations of the “South Core Public Safety Audit” through “Fort William’s Public Safety Task Force” alongside developing Downtown Core Strategies and improvement programs.
This is part of a larger economic plan for a more diversified economy through working with the CEDC, (Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission) to support manufacturing, the local housing and food sectors, and particularly of interest for students , retaining young professionals.
Speaking with head of City Planning at the City of Thunder Bay, Anne Dawkins told the Argus that not only was there a strategic plan in place that looks at corporations, but her division deals with official plans for land development. She mentioned that the city had budgeted for a retail market analysis to get some guidance, but that didn’t happen, and now changes are being considered in the plan for land use.
When asked about levels of loyalty to local markets, Anne’s answer demonstrated the need for developing Thunder Bay’s local shopping district, “I’m not sure it’s about loyalty as much as isolation.” She encouraged further research into considering what numbers of the population are shopping in the states. “Because of isolation there is forced loyalty, but the only thing is, how much of shopper’s retail dollars are leaving to the states to places like Duluth?”
The City of Thunder Bay is the community’s largest single property owner, owning 14 per cent of Thunder Bay’s total land area within city limits, with the corporation owning more land outside these limits. Anne said “looking at vacancies in commercial land, the City must consider how its use will affect the retail market, much of which has not been discussed or determined.”
In looking to the future, clear successes have been made in creating local shopping districts that highlight not only the cultural diversity existing in the city, but an array of artisanal and craft goods that cannot be found in big box chain stores. Examples can be taken from the Historical Bay Algoma district that is now a tourist destination and local shopping area filled with restaurants, pubs, clothing stores, and gift shops. With areas like this existing, citizens can only hope similar steps are taken, and businesses invest into attempts to revitalize and beautify areas that have been thrown to the wayside, such as County Fair Plaza and the Downtown South Core.