Following Tuesday night’s municipal election results, the Tavola Restaurant and Erin’s Pub owner is cautiously optimistic, as much as it pains him.
“No one has been more of a vociferous critic of the current council than me and I think this new council has come in with a lot of vision and a lot of promises,” Hallett says.
“I hate to be optimistic, but I’m excited.”
As for mayor-elect Danny Breen, who, as a member of the outgoing council, has often been a focal point of Hallett’s displeasure with council’s direction, he figures the councillor-turned-mayor is smart enough to recognize that the fresh, young, progressive group elected on Tuesday will shepherd in a new way of doing business at city hall.
“I’m sure he recognizes that some of the votes he has weren’t so much a pro-Danny Breen vote as they were an anti-Andy Wells vote,” Hallett said.
“That being the case, considering the fact that a lot of the incumbents, who were kind of older retired white guys, went out the door in this election, I think he also has to recognize that there’s a lot of rejection of that way of doing things.”
In the new council, Hallett sees a group of people who better understand the problems facing the downtown core and how it is the “economic and cultural heartbeat” of the city, largely because many of them have lived and worked there.
Hallett sees issues big and small plaguing the commercial and residential interests of the downtown community, from simple things such as ensuring old promotional concert posters are removed from poles to a taxation system tailored to suit the downtown.
“When you look on the city’s marketing, you don’t see pictures of Aberdeen Avenue and Stavanger Drive, you see Water Street and Duckworth Street and George Street, and the city has really neglected those areas and they’ve let them become dirty, they’ve neglected infrastructure, they’ve taxed a lot of small businesses into oblivion.
“Downtown St. John’s already has a lot of energy. I think it just needs more nurturing than punishment.”
The Downtown Development Corp. (DDC) shares many of the same concerns around taxation and property assessment values, but executive director Scott Cluney says there are long-term concerns that need be addressed sooner rather than later, specifically a re-investment from the city in capital works in the downtown.
“We undertook a number of projects that date 25 years now since we started some of our capital works projects down here with redevelopment of the sidewalks, streets, decorative lighting, and a lot of that stuff now is 25 years old and it needs to be updated and refreshed,” Cluney says.
“It would be good to see the streetscape brought back to that level that it was in the early 2000s, when we undertook re-doing a lot of the streets. That would include George Street as well.”
Cluney says the DDC, as it did years ago, is ready to partner with the city and bring financial resources to bear to help make it happen.
In the short term, partnering on tourism initiatives to benefit residents and visitors alike is paramount, as is snowclearing, he said.
“Ensuring that downtown and the commercial district maintain access throughout the winter months so businesses can continue to do business and people can access the downtown all the time, so it’s not just a summer fair-weather place” is one of the DDC’s goals, Cluney says.
On the whole, Cluney says the DDC is pleased with the new council, especially Breen and deputy mayor-elect Sheilagh O’Leary, both of whom have been “great supporters” of downtown.
He’s especially hopeful that Breen comes through with an election promise to establish a firm downtown development strategy that takes into account commercial, residential and historical interests.
“That’s something we definitely would be very much in favour of and love to work with Mayor Breen and staff and other councils on developing.”
Outside of the downtown, St. John’s Board of Trade chair Dorothy Keating says her group is eager to sit down with the newly elected council and reopen dialogue about the impact of positive business on the city’s economy.
“When business succeeds, everyone succeeds because of the economic stimulus, and having a welcoming city to business is extremely important,” she says.
“Our priorities with respect to that remain the same.”
In terms of what the board hopes council will deal with in the near term, Keating says development regulations are high on the agenda, as is tax fairness.
“We want to engage in those conversations with the new council members as well, and fiscal responsibility is a key factor for us in terms of how the tax dollars from business and individuals are spent by the city.”