Things are not great when you’re downtown

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For some time it has seemed to me, and so many others, that there was a massive disconnect between those who purport to run the City of St. John’s and those who live and work here.

Water Street as it snakes west to connect with George Street and Beck’s Cove in downtown St. John's.

In the current recession, downtown businesses are suffering and struggling more then most — we operate on tighter margins with restrictions and constraints on parking and planning and equipment that make it a very challenging place to do business. Yet we persist — because we love this city, and the old downtown, and we believe in it. Personally, I have spent much of my career singing, writing, and talking about this city, and I have invested my life savings in business and other properties located here.

For his part, the mayor loves Bowring Park, and has often described it as the “jewel in the crown” of this city’s civic offerings. While the park may be the best landscaped piece of geography whereabouts, the reality is that this city’s economic and tourist heart is the downtown. The handful of streets between Military Road and the harbour offer a mix of retail, hospitality, industrial and residential uses unmatched in North America for a city of our size. This area should be celebrated for its diversity and historic character. Certainly the city and provinces’ own tourist literature and marketing materials are based almost entirely on a vision of a historic, colourful and lively downtown. The city should be doing everything in its power to protect and enhance this area.

Instead we feel neglected and abused.

The harbour fence was my first indication that something was going wrong in the city I love. Who thought this was a good idea? And why did we have to pay for it when so many people hated it?

Along similar lines, earlier this year there was a brief debate about returning fireworks to the waterfront on New Year’s Eve. A decade ago this city had a harbourfront New Year’s Eve celebration to rival cities 10 times its size. Now much of the downtown is silent and empty at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Over the decade or so since the celebration’s removal, those of us in the hospitality business have watched in sad dismay as one of the biggest nights of the year has been eliminated, at the whim of the council. The argument about safety seems ludicrous. Can’t that bloody great fence keep drunks from falling in the harbour?

The council's indifference to the rigours of the so-called Water Street big dig was another indication that something really strange was going on. In meeting after meeting, business owners wondered, “How can they not see how hard this will be for us? Downtown is a pedestrian area. If the streets are dug up and access barred, we will struggle to get customers into our premises.” And yet we had blithe reassurances that all was good, and in five or six years or whenever it got done, we would all be immensely better off. After a firestorm of criticism, it was delayed. But still we wait in fear, because we know it is coming, and we have no idea what — if any — measures will be taken to ensure our continued operations.

Now in the midst of a crushing recession, we face a tax increase, a massive and destructive one. While the city has touted an average commercial increase of a little over 14 per cent, (as if this was a good thing) many downtown businesses are looking at increases of over 20 per cent, at a time when they are barely getting by. Many are appealing appraisals that seem utterly divorced from reality. Downtown business owners are scared — they quietly whisper about revenue falling 30-40 per cent over the past six months. Quite a few are still struggling to pay their 2015 taxes, not to mention the bills that will soon arrive for 2016. Last winter saw a number of closures, many empty shopfronts have yet to be filled, and with the leanest months of the year coming on, business owners grow more and more concerned for their very survival.

In the city’s own pre-budget materials, council stated clearly that their aim was “to maintain services and invest in capital expenditures through innovative approaches and new sources of revenue.” A massive property tax increase shows zero evidence of innovation, and it is hardly a “new” source of revenue.

Several councillors have also spoken about the efforts made to spread the revenue shortfall around. Yet the most cursory read of the city’s budget documents reveal the opposite is true —  most city departments are seeing increases, some of them huge — the mayor and councillors’ offices will see a $23,000 boost; strategy and engagement increases by $29,000, adminstration services, $120,000; human resources by a half a million; legal services by over $250,000; water treatment, $2.5 million; taxi Inspections, $10,000 — and so on.

Finance committee chairman Coun. Jonathan Galgay's cut in arts funding was mean spirited, and his turnabout predictable — a mere diversion, a distraction from the taxation debacle. Similarly, the mayor’s announcement that we soon will have the opportunity to buy land from the Galway development sends us again in the wrong direction. Danny William’s development has nothing to do with the current budgetary crisis. More to the point, if the City of St. John’s can’t afford it, perhaps Galway should be ceded to the City of Mount Pearl, where topography and logic suggests it should already be located.

The fault for this state of affairs lies entirely at the steps of St. John’s city hall, in an optimistic and expansionist fiscal agenda which was divorced from economic reality. It is in council chambers where the solutions to our problems lie.

 Those who voted for this debacle cannot sit idly by while this city sails off a cliff. Coun. (Bruce) Tilley’s city website touts his interest in “taxation (and) economic development.” Coun. (Danny) Breen boasts of his interest in “strong fiscal management of the city’s finances.” Gentlemen, now would be a good time to put these interests into action.

This budget is bad —bad for the residents, bad for the taxpayers, and worst of all, it ruinous for those who have invested their own lives and savings in making the downtown the special place it is. This budget is not “building for the future” — it is destroying it.

I beg you all — fix this mess, or admit failure, and let others try and dig us out of this hole.

Bob Hallett

resident and business owner

downtown St. John’s

Geographic location: Bowring Park, Military Road, North America Water Street Mount Pearl

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Recent comments

  • Audacity
    January 11, 2016 - 18:32

    Bob Hallett for city council

  • Spaz
    January 11, 2016 - 13:07

    So the big dig should never happen because of the businesses down there? Hallett is out to lunch.

  • Jay
    January 11, 2016 - 12:30

    I would love for the Fireworks to return to downtown, I just had a conversation with one of the bar owners who said that many people no longer come downtown on New Years. Bring them back to the area they originated from, it would revitalize the businesses. They could bus people from the Lake and Confederation Building & the Village, it doesn't take rocket science to do this, just vision. They could have it earlier as some Towns do around 9 or 10 and whatever small businesses want to open for snacks, coffee, etc could do so, and people could go for a drink, etc.

  • ASBO
    January 11, 2016 - 12:19

    Amalgamate!

  • Dolf
    January 11, 2016 - 12:07

    I heartily agree with the writer. But on another front, d'fence keeps out those NAZI submarines whose crews don't know the Second WW is over. Maybe there's more to O'Keefe than you give him credit for.

  • Steve
    January 11, 2016 - 11:56

    All very good points. To put it all in perspective, I'd really like to know how much of an annual increase in taxes is Mr. Hallett looking at? For me as a residential property owner it is an increase of about $400 per year. If it's in that range, or at least under $1000, given that he operates 2 businesses, a bar and a restaurant, I think that would be reasonable. If that amount will drive you out of business, you are not going to survive the next 3-5 years anyway.

    • Kate
      January 19, 2016 - 09:12

      As a business, it will go up thousands more. Sometimes double or even triple the amont from just 4 years ago. I challenge you to do a little more reasearch and rwading on how businesses are taxed.

    • Ken Simmons
      January 19, 2016 - 09:23

      Bob Hallett posted the following on his Facebook page: It has taken a while to figure it all out, but in 2012, when we bought 186 Water Street, a.k.a Erins Pub, taxes were just over $5000 a year. By 2015 they had climbed to $8580.That was a steep increase, but bearable. This year they are going up to an incredible $17,640. So there are the facts - 300 per cent in four years.

  • Barfly
    January 11, 2016 - 08:14

    No worries, mate. St John's is a great town for a walk about in daylight, but the tanked crocodiles come out at night, especially the George St area.

  • Steve Coleman
    January 11, 2016 - 01:55

    My wife and I live in Brisbane Australia. Through our many visits to relatives in Toronto I was introduced to the Great Big Sea. Finally this April we get to go to St John's to experience your music and hospitality. I hope down town is what I hope it will be.

    • Dolf
      January 11, 2016 - 15:06

      Good luck, you'll need it. April and May are our worst months weatherwise.

  • mom
    January 10, 2016 - 16:11

    I think it would be a great idea to encourage more people to go downtown for a walk and browse in the stores. There are some unique gifts to be found and it is great exercise to walk around this beautiful area.

  • Sparky
    January 10, 2016 - 14:56

    Great letter Bob and I understand your frustration with this council. I wonder if one from Council and the Mayor included, ever walk downtown to utilize the stores or restaurants. They would then understand the importance of what it means to the City. It is the first place tourists visit, especially those from the cruise ships, I don't think there is a mad rush to get out to Bowring Park. Why Mayor O'Keefe is anxious to put our City in more debt by rushing out to spend millions on Galway, it just doesn't make sense. From the time he approved that fence to now, I have lost all faith in him. It is definitely time for him to resign as he does not understand what a hardship it is to be living in this city now with it's lack of services and high taxation.

  • Me
    January 09, 2016 - 22:21

    When you raise taxes, think of the multiplier effect. The business may raise prices but that may drive customers away at some point. It may layoff staff. That could mean less hours open and probably less product bought to sell. In the current economy, they will have a problem getting work so they have less to spend. Then other stores get less revenue and so, and so on. Meanwhile the city pays higher salaries and spends tax dollars where not completely necessary. Perhaps a detailed list of money being spent can show the waste. There may be a few surprises.

  • Jayne
    January 09, 2016 - 21:19

    Excellent article, well written. Bob how about stepping up for Council during next election....or even Ward 4 soon....we could definitely use someone business minded with common sense. Galgay's response to justified criticism is to attack the person, a very small-minded approach. I can't wait for this Council to be shown the door. Why not organize a more vocal protest of increased property and business taxes....there are many waiting for the opportunity to do so.

  • William Coaker
    January 09, 2016 - 15:29

    What the hell does this city's uncontrolled tax and spend behaviour have to do with Liberal governments - either here or in Ottawa? You are aware that voters in NL and Canada have just ejected Tory governments that did more to damage respective provincial and national economies in the past decade than any in the past half century? You are aware that this province faces a massive, unsustainable debt thanks to your Tory friends - a debt so high that it will preclude doing much for municipalities anywhere in the province for years to come. The Tories here and in Ottawa abandoned any effort of economic development and diversification. Instead they sat on their fat assess with fingers crossed that dirty oil would fuel the economy for the next century. Not that the problems in the concrete bunker on Gower Street have anything to do with provincial and federal mismanagement. O'Keefe and company have their own long history of mismanagement to account for. But as a lackey for the Tory party, your game is obvious; convince the public that the new Liberal governments - and not the disastrous, defeated Tory governments - are somehow responsible for the economic ruination we see everywhere. Your presumption of stupidity among the population at large is insulting. No wonder you wouldn't attach your name to this piece of trash.

  • Kathy G
    January 09, 2016 - 12:55

    Tis the Liberal way of slash, gut, tax and destroy. Yet people fall for them everytime and vote them in for all the puppy and unicorn promises, only to be quickly broken and the exact opposite done. You can pretty much kiss Canada goodbye when Trulander and crew get down with it. Best of luck Bob.

    • Brad
      January 09, 2016 - 17:31

      And you think Harper and Co were any better? I'm typically Conservative, but he's the reason we're in this mess now!

    • TC
      January 09, 2016 - 21:18

      You realize that this budget was the city budget and had nothing to do with Federal Politics right? You aren't that daft are you....

  • Jerome
    January 09, 2016 - 12:36

    I agree with everything you have said Bob. In 8 years what I have paid the city has doubled, where has this money gone. Even the Board of Trade said a couple of years ago the city 's 8-9% increases in expenditure was not sustainable, but the city kept on spending with no end in site. With each new development O'Keefe talks about the needed increase in tax revenue, why to help reduce our own taxes we pay the city, no, it is to increase the amount the city spends, madness. Southlands and Galway should have never been part of St. John's, Mt Pearl would have been the logical choice. With all that O'Keefe wants to do with Galway, how long will it take in tax payback, before it would be paid off. Galway will only increase taxes for the rest of the St. John's residents. Mt Pearl has the fire department and the municipal depot to service Galway, with no added cost to them or to us, let them have it. Wasn't it a short time ago St. John's was talking about city density , so as to reduce costs, instead of servicing future distant areas.

  • Paul
    January 09, 2016 - 11:30

    You make a great case for amalgation. The city of St. John's is funding infrastucture used by residents of all the Metropolitan area . Maybe with residents of Mt. Pearl and Paridise etc paying their fair share to the infrastucture we all use , we would be in better financial shape. Instead we have Randy Simms smugly boasting about a balancd budget. Balanced on the backs St. John's taxpayers. On a sude note, the reality is also true that taxes in St. John's are lower than many similar sized Canadian municipalities. Check it out!

    • Brad
      January 09, 2016 - 17:34

      Was gonna say the same. I live in Saint John, NB and prop taxes are insance. For a townhouse assessed at $150k, it's $3,000/year!

  • NoNo
    January 09, 2016 - 10:24

    It's a very simple plan. Council has to cut expenses to cough up the $8,000,000 for the land in Galway.