Things are not great when you’re downtown

Published on January 9, 2016
The long and winding road; Water Street as it snakes west to connect with George Street and Beck’s Cove in downtown St. John's.
Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

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.

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