Attending the Chamber of Commerce’s annual general meeting and dinner party on a recent Friday night and then strolling around downtown the next day felt like Trail’s version of “A Tale of Two Cities.”
There were no guillotines to be seen downtown, but the signs of death were everywhere. This was in striking contrast to the chamber AGM, where youthfulness and optimism were ascendant among the candidates for the board of directors. Outgoing president Ron Clarke spoke of the chamber’s growing membership of over 250 businesses large and small, and all the events and services the organization provides.
But outside the Riverbelle banquet hall, the streets told a different story.
I counted over 20 shuttered small storefronts on Bay and Cedar Avenue and their side streets, which was more than the number of pedestrians spotted during a 30-minute mid-afternoon meander.
Add to that the larger buildings that now stand empty: the old CM&S company store, which until recently housed a video store that has moved to smaller quarters; the old Eaton’s building; the former Eagle’s and PLP premises; and the fortress-like C.S. Williams Clinic. Fields will soon be joining the vacant monuments to the city’s economic past, when 13,000 people lived in Trail and bigger commercial centres were not an easy drive away.
The long-awaited consultant’s report on the future of the city’s core is to be released this month. Let’s hope the city, chamber, economic development office, regional district, Teck and other large companies, building owners, small businesses, the Columbia Basin Trust, senior levels of government, non-profits and Trail citizens are presented with a plan they can get behind and get on with, because it is a big job that needs doing.
To start, downtown desperately needs a facelift. Just about every building calls out for a power wash, while many require at least paint jobs and decent signage to make their fronts look respectable. The fact McDonald’s is pretty much the best-looking building tells you all you need to know about the state of the core.
While beautification is not the cure for what ails the area it is an obvious place to start and should facilitate a change in attitude of businesses and customers.
Attitude adjustment is no small thing in downtown, where an atmosphere of doom prevails. While seeing few cars and almost no people on the streets, I did come across one non-automotive business with used tires for sale in its front window.
Other businesses were closed for no apparent reason. With the exception of that stretch of Cedar Avenue where Shoppers’ Drug Mart is located, most blocks don’t beckon potential customers.
There is a certain amount of chicken and egg here: businesses won’t invest until they can foresee a decent return and consumers won’t come unless they are interested. This is where government intervention is needed in the form of tax incentives and a major student works program to get renovation costs in line with short-term returns on investment. Perhaps the skills centre and development office could put together a program to ease or eliminate the paperwork burden on contractors who could utilize subsidized student laborers.
The city should move ahead with a museum, library and visual arts centre on its Esplanade lands, which incorporates commercial and residential space. I know that outdoor summer dining on the waterfront sounds like intergalactic travel by Trail standards, but surely someone can make this happen?
The local partners in the Greater Trail Community Centre (what’s left of the regional recreation function) need to invest in a marketing plan for the Charles Bailey Theatre and utilization of the portion of the building rented to Selkirk College.
In addition to condos on the river, how about turning the Ferraro Foods parking lot into a housing project with a medium- or high-rise building atop the cars? Downtown needs more people not living below the poverty line walking the streets and using the services on a daily basis.
Ultimately, the planners have to entice more people to live not just downtown, but also in Trail and its suburbs.
The Community in Bloom committee has done some preliminary tracking of the astonishing number of people who earn their loot from Trail’s major employers but live in Castlegar and beyond.
Proximity should be a natural advantage in attracting new workers to settle in Trail, but apparently the limited housing stock and other factors not. Research needs to be done on what these people want and how we can encourage developers to build it for them.
When more people want to live in Greater Trail, as well as shop, eat, and entertain themselves here, then we will have a community we can enjoy even more than we already do.
Raymond Masleck is a retired long-time reporter for the Times. He is president of the Visac Gallery and Trail District Arts Council, vice-president of a local seniors’ housing society, and active in the Rotary Club of Trail.