A transformation is taking place... Downtown goes Uptown
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“We believe in [downtown] Barrie,” said Suse Ives, owner of Simply Tea & Chocolate that opened in June 2011. “We didn't even look anywhere else [when looking for a location].”
What drew her and her husband in is the sense of momentum that permeates the streets that are defined as the downtown core: High Street to Poyntz and Collier to Simcoe. “There's been momentum bubbling for a long time but now it feels like it's almost boiling.”
Ives isn't the only one who has tapped into the changing face of Barrie's city centre. Randy Micallef, owner of Deeelish Waffles & Desserts on Maple Avenue, did his research when deciding on his location.
“There's good things happening here especially with the [Mady] theatre opening,” said Micallef, who was looking for a high-traffic location. “Plus the [Maple Avenue Towers] next door and what I've seen of the other condos. I'm seeing long-term.”
Reasons for choosing the downtown are as varied as the businesses and organizations that have chosen to put down roots.
Kate Ramos recently opened The Edge Gallery at 32 Dunlop St. “The downtown is where all the outdoor activities happen. It's the perfect place for the arts,” she said citing the pedestrian traffic and her proximity to the Imperial Theatre, the Mady Centre and restaurants. “I'm hoping to attract visitors between dinner and a show.”
For others it is the view of the water that made the difference.
“I was looking for a beautiful space by the water and this space spoke to me,” said Anne Green, owner of Bliss Studios, located on the second floor at 50 Dunlop St.
Green's studio boasts the old hardwood floors and brick walls so appealing in many urban spaces. It is this character and charm that was also the deciding factor for Jessica Valiant, owner of Rawlicious located in The Shoppes.
“The minute I saw the old Second Cup location I said ‘Yes.' The space is very much alive and it was exactly what I wanted.”
  That smaller, boutique feeling is one of the reasons that Jeff Borgmeyer of Tropical North chose to return to his downtown location after operating the Ron Jon Surf Shop in the Georgian Mall.
“People like the boutique feel,” he said, having recently celebrated  his twentieth year in operation. “They can see the water. It's real with squeaky floors.”
It isn't just new businesses that are tapping into the new energy that runs through Barrie's downtown. Longtime businesses like Metzger Studio and The Brentwood Salon have relocated within the downtown to larger spaces that better suit their needs.
It would be easy to think that this optimism and new found growth in the city's core is a result of chance but as with so many overnight successes that is simply not the case.
The downtown that Barrie residents are enjoying today, and in the future, is a result of years of quiet behind-the-scenes work by many individuals who believed in what Barrie had on offer.
“This is a result of good hard work by a whole bunch of people who are incredible ambassadors for the downtown,” said Hany Kirolos, Director of Strategy & Economic Development for the City of Barrie. “Things are now taking traction.”
That traction includes developments other than retail. The 15-storey Maple Avenue Towers by Auburn Development are already under construction, Mady Development has a completion date of 2014 for Lakeview Condos, a two-tower development with a mixed commercial plaza on the Foodland site at Collier and Mulcaster, and the Allandale GO station is opening in the early days of 2012.
Once completed, that level of development, estimated at over $100 million, will create its own force within the community.
“Once we reach a threshold of residential and business people occupying the city centre, it creates all sorts of other synergies,” said Kirolos. “There are more organizations waiting for the downtown to reach critical mass before relocating.”  
The city put together its Downtown Commercial Master Plan several years ago with components like the financial district on Collier Street and the Mady Centre of the Performing Arts at the Five Points intersection having already come to fruition
But much of what created what appears to be a perfect synergy is the behind the scenes work by the Barrie Business Association and its partners.
For six years the organization has been putting together the budget, organization and partnerships necessary to create an entire downtown experience for visitors and residents. That includes marketing, communications, traffic and safety elements, cleanliness and beautification, retail businesses and hospitality among others.
“If you look at a well-presented mall,” said Stevens. “We're taking all the good elements and applying them to the downtown.”
At the beginning of 2011 there were more than 20 vacant store fronts in the downtown. At the end of the year there were less than 10.
One of the aspects of the process that Stevens stresses is every small initiative feeds into the whole. “It's the signage in conjunction with the banners in conjunction with the festival lighting and in conjunction with the Memorial Square development.”
Stevens says redevelopment of Memorial Square as a gathering place is in the City budget for 2015 but he is hoping to push the completion date to 2015 through public-private partnerships. One proposed scenario is cost sharing between the city, the BIA, and a private fundraising campaign – much like the Mady Centre.
Another initiative that fits into the larger whole is through The Next Wave Community Improvement Plan that could potentially assist restaurant owners with installing patios. Often there is a fair amount of traffic in the downtown during the day and later in the evening but it is the 5 to 9 p.m. window that they are looking to fill. Patios would bring people downtown for dinner or retain them after shopping.
“By seeing people on patios, people driving by will see people having fun and enjoying themselves outdoors.  It encourages them to join them and brings an opportunity for retailers to extend their hours to catch the traffic. Pair this activity with cultural events and there's your momentum. It really is truly amazing.”
All these small initiatives are working towards the ultimate goal of bringing Uptown literally to downtown but in a larger way than simply rebranding.
“We're changing the logo and the colours but that's not the focus,” said Stevens. “We're not going to change [the branding] until the product is ready.”
The choice of Uptown embodies more than just the name. It is designed to reflect the more individual offering of the businesses, its physical location ‘up' from Allandale, the waterfront, and even Toronto.
Ultimately it will reflect the evolution and change the core has undergone to become the centre of economic activity it already shows signs of becoming.
“The moment the [Mady] Theatre opened it didn't create a bustling downtown; it doesn't work that way,” said Arkady Spivak, Artistic producer of Talk is Free Theatre that calls the new Mady Centre home. “But the ingredients are definitely there.”
The designation as an Urban Growth Centre by the McGuinty government has also had a considerable influence on the evolution of downtown.  
“That drew a lot of attention [to Barrie],” said Kirolos, adding that the City took the sudden spotlight as an opportunity to promote everything that the city had to offer and included marketing the Foodland location and the convention centre.
“We were running hard and fast on the convention centre and then the global crisis of 2008 hit. The economy is always going to force changes.”
The possibility of a convention centre isn't completely gone but for now Kirolos and Stevens are focussing on other things.
“It was a mistake to lay our hat on the convention centre,” said Stevens. “We thought it would be the game changer.”
That mistake has led him and the BIA to a better understanding of how true downtown revitalization comes about. “Where there are areas that are truly revitalized it is at the grass roots. It's where they've decided what they want the downtown to be and built it up slowly.”
Which is exactly what has been happening, and working currently, in Barrie's downtown.
All cities go through growth cycles and Kirolos compares Barrie's downtown to areas like Yonge and Dundas in Toronto or King and Bay.
Rundown during the 1970s, it has taken time for the revitalization to take root.
“We've been growing out,” said Kirolos. “Now it's time to intensify the City Centre. For many the lifestyle is more appealing to live in the city.”
A desire for urban living is something that developer Mark Porter is witnessing first-hand. He owns more than 10 properties in the downtown core at various stages of revitalization and development but an area of significant activity is the often forgotten apartments that sit above the sidewalk real estate space.
“There is such a demand from people who want to live downtown in a nice finished unit. There's a lot of pride in that for people. As soon as a unit is renovated it is rented.”
The change in Barrie's level of competitiveness outside of its
boundaries has also pushed change around the waterfront including downtown. In the past, investors traditionally ended up in Toronto or on the outskirts in places like Brampton and Richmond Hill.
With so many of those places becoming built-out and with costs rising, Barrie has become a much better value proposition for investors. When Kirolos has entertained investors from the United Kingdom and China they are predominantly looking in the downtown since most of the city is already land-locked.
“In terms of retail and commercial activity there's a unique opportunity around the waterfront,” said Kirolos.
With so many elements involved in the current resurgence of the downtown, knowing what comes next has its challenges. As any good creator – or entrepreneur – knows, it's important not to leave anything out since nothing is mutually exclusive and all of them contribute to the whole. And that whole includes not only the downtown but all of Barrie.
“The core of the city reflects the health of the city,” said Anne Green, who built her business towards finding a studio space downtown. “Whatever happens in the core is going to reverberate throughout.”


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