Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect BDIA confirmation that a new executive director has been hired and she will be making an official announcement within a couple of days once the contract is finalized.
Some creative ideas could be on the horizon to help fill several empty commercial storefronts in downtown Belleville.
Data collected by Quinte News shows of the 105 storefronts on Front Street, 26% (37) are vacant, and some have been for years. One in every four, is a stark contrast to Trenton’s downtown core with 84 businesses where only 11.9% (10) are empty and of the 144 shop locations on Main Street in Picton, 7.09% (11) are closed.
All three municipalities have recently undertaken multi-million dollar revitalization projects to fix aging infrastructure and spruce up its urban centres. The City of Belleville is about to embark on its final and third phase of a $34.5 million revitalization with tenders for the remaining $12 million in work sent out last week.
When pressed for comment on plans to create more businesses in the core now that the construction finish line is almost near, Chair of the Mayor’s Implementation Team, Mayor Taso Christopher declined multiple requests. However, the City’s Manager of Economic Development Karen Poste pointed to an upcoming positive image campaign that is set to be unveiled Wednesday at the Belleville Downtown Improvement Association board meeting.
“The campaign to be produced by Online Business Marketer Aaron Bell features interviews with 50 customers, businesses and residents,” offered Dwayne Barrett chair of the Belleville Downtown Improvement Area. He will be asking everyone why they love downtown Belleville.
The stories will be shared through social media, print, radio and signage explained Barrett. It will undergo a soft launch in April and be fully rolled out in June. A price tag for the initiative wasn’t readily available upon request nor a complete business headcount including Dundas and Pinnacle Streets.
Dwane Barratt, Chair of the Belleville Downtown Improvement Area said he thinks it’s a great idea given how many innovative entrepreneurs call downtown home and continue to move in even after phase one of construction was completed in 2015. The board also plans on discussing relaunching a 2015 ‘Win this Space’ idea but on a larger format to more entrepreneurs, Barrett offered.
“We would create a panel made up of representatives of the BDIA, Trenval and local investors,” he explained. “Then try to get young entrepreneurs to open a store by giving them a vacant store that’s in downtown Belleville rent free or rent subsidized for a time period. In other cities I know they have done some things where other freebies are thrown in. For example maybe some financial help through an accountant, lawyer, someone who does cleaning or signage to help them get started because obviously starting any new business these days takes a couple years to get established.”
He also pointed to a a busy summer with BDIA movie nights, the Bay of Quinte art and wine festival, an art of the wall project and car show as popular festivities aimed at filling the core with eager shoppers.
Barratt also explained how more ideas should be rolling out now that the BDIA has confirmed a verbal agreement on hiring a new executive director. Barratt said just finalizing contract negotiations and they will let her make the announcement within a few days once negotiations are finalized.
When asked about what areas of the City she plans to focus her sights on, without any hesitation, new Belleville Chamber of Commerce CEO Jill Raycroft answered downtown. During her inaugural speech dedicated to economic growth, Raycroft announced plans of community engagement and education partnerships to continue to drive business in the City.
The 2016 Christmas shopping season marked the end of the second round of construction. During that time business owners expressed a sigh of relief mixed with hope and vigor. Many praised an increase in foot traffic on busy shopping days like Black Friday – largely attributed to public curiosity and excitement in seeing Front Street’s revamped north side coupled with free parking they said. Another notable factor they all agreed on was an increase in demand for unique, locally made, sold and dependable products that many downtown shops offer.
In Trenton, construction wrapped up in late 2016. Quinte West Mayor Jim Harrison commended business owners for remaining optimistic throughout the process. They also saw an increase in foot traffic. He echoed previous praises to new Trent Port Marina nestled within walking distance as a welcomed contributor to that renewed excitement. Mayor Harrison admitted he doesn’t like to see any empty storefronts adding the City is working with various organizations to get the remaining 10 filled.
Prince Edward County cut the ribbon on its new main drag just moments before the annual Santa Claus parade, giving the jolly man in red a much anticipated and warm welcome. The County, Picton BIA, Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce and business owners all expressed their own sigh of relief mixed with even greater optimism. With what will undoubtedly be another busy tourist season just bubbling at the roots to start, County merchants are ready. Also commending business owners for their patience throughout the construction, Prince Edward County Mayor Robert Quaiff echoed Harrison’s sentiments that the numbers tell him there is still more work to be done.
The County’s other four urban areas: Bloomfield, Consecon, Rossmore and Wellington are also in the queue for downtown revitalization projects.