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Comment: More cheerleaders needed for downtown Victoria

Nov 03 2012

The downtown of any city is the best indicator of a region's overall health and vitality. In Victoria, we have our share of challenges, but we cannot allow ourselves to become blind to all the positive conditions that also exist. Let's celebrate our strengths and confront the negative perceptions that influence our thinking.

Victoria embraces festivals for their vibrancy and street flavour. Just to name a few, we have Rifflandia, the Buskers Festival, the film festival and the International Cycling Festival.

Unique retail shops make our downtown entirely different from what one finds at a conventional shopping mall, including a desire to promote and buy locally. Our changing downtown demographic includes an emerging young resident population, attracted to Victoria by the climate, the presence of technology leaders like Microsoft and the availability of affordable downtown condominiums.

We are a pet-and bicycle-friendly city, the first choice for major athletic events and the original home of megastars like David Foster. We celebrate our connection to First Nations people and our colourful pioneer history, along with many other elements of our multifaceted identity.

We have fine dining, world-class hotels, a thriving arts culture and a working harbour that is breathtaking in its beauty, energy and potential. All of this makes us a destination of choice other cities can only dream of being.

The social concerns, environmental pressures and economic stresses downtown Victoria wrestles with are no different from any other North American city. We can choose to view them not as threats, but as opportunities to create positive change, and aspire to be a role model for other downtowns around the world.

Parking gets a lot of attention. We don't need more parking spaces, but we can improve our methods of telling people where they are and encourage the use of downtown parkades over street parking. Consider the fact you will never get a ticket for parking too long in a parkade.

At the same time, many forget that downtown Victoria is incredibly "walkable." Park underneath the library where space is always available, and walk to the Bay Centre. You will probably see something new you hadn't previously noticed from the confines of your vehicle.

The perception also exists that criminal activity in the downtown is steadily increasing. In reality, various law-enforcement activities have resulted in the successful targeting of chronic and violent offenders. The Victoria Integrated Court deals with public-order offences such as petty theft, vandalism and graffiti committed by individuals who are prepared to accept responsibility and work toward rehabilitation. This has allowed the police to focus their resources on more serious violent crime.

Note the numbers: The Victoria Police Department's 2011-12 crime statistics official release states that over the last 10 years, the crime rate per 100,000 population has decreased by 18.4 per cent.

Businesses have been encouraged to assert their rights against aggressive panhandlers who contravene the relevant bylaws, and the Downtown Victoria Business Association maintains a strong partnership with VicPD to keep a safety lens on downtown. The city has invested in cleaning up and securing its parkades and the BarWatch program has resulted in fewer calls to the police for late-night fighting and mischief.

All of this speaks to the success of multiple efforts to address common downtown safety concerns.

Strategies to reduce homelessness in the region, which has an impact on the core, have also proven to be effective. We have a strong coalition of service providers whose efforts have resulted in 245 net new units of subsidized housing, recognizing that the key to reducing homelessness is narrowing the gap between income and affordable housing.

For its part, the DVBA offers a variety of programs to its members with the goal of enhancing, animating and promoting the downtown - from an event like last year's Christmas skating rink, to the services of the Clean Team, and sustainability initiatives such as the Green Index and the reCYCLISTS.

We work with partners at all levels of government to influence future planning on a number of economic fronts, as we firmly believe that effective collaboration will result in greater downtown prosperity.

In the final analysis, if we want tourists, investors and residents from outside the core to come downtown, we need to be positive and compelling in our arguments to attract them. Next time you find yourself focusing on something you don't like about downtown, identify something you do like, and then make a point of telling someone about it.

Our social fabric, the links that connect us to one another, will be that much stronger.

If you want to hear more about the great stories of our downtown, or tell us one of your own, contact anyone in the office of the DVBA or on its board of directors, or reach us through our website, Facebook or Twitter. Every day, we are "committed to the core."

Fran Hobbis is chairwoman of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

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