Meet the new downtown

Previous city councils talked about downtown revitalization and did nothing.

In the past three years, this council has rarely talked about it and done more to kickstart Prince George's beleaguered city centre than the last 30 years of mayors and councillors.

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Heading into a municipal election this October, if Mayor Lyn Hall and the rest of this current council are looking for something to hang their reelection campaigns on, their downtown work would be a good place to start.

The list of accomplishments is impressive:

The Days Inn will be bulldozed to make way for a new $35-million downtown pool to replace the aging Four Seasons Pool across the street. Construction is expected to start later this year or in early 2019.

A $37-million condominium and underground parkade on George Street, across the street from city hall. There will be 151 apartment condos and 288 parking stalls, with about half reserved for building residents and the rest available for monthly lease. Work is expected to start in late 2018 or early 2019.

The $4.5-million Wood Innovation Research Laboratory building is under construction next to the Wood Innovation and Design Centre.

Construction is also underway on a nine-unit condo project on Seventh Avenue.

Construction is nearly finished on the Marriott Courtyard Hotel. Construction started in September 2013 and then ground to a halt in March 2014. It took a $3.2-million cash infusion from the city, using money from a Northern Development Initiatives Trust fund, and a 10-year tax exemption to get work started again in July 2016. A previous council gave it the go-ahead but it was this council that got the project to the finish line.

A $1.7-million renovation on the long-dormant Odeon Theatre on Third Avenue is underway. When it opens, it will be the new community hall for the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation.

Council also cracked down on derelict downtown properties and their owners, ordering the demolition of the old George Street laundromat.

The Foundry building opened in 2017, offering a one-stop downtown health and social service centre for youth. More than a dozen government agencies and non-profits partnered to make it happen.

Numerous new downtown restaurants have opened in the past three years, many of which required either new construction or significant renovation investment. A sample list includes Betulla Burning, Kask and Crossroads. Kask was significant because it received a permit from this city council to serve until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, while mayor and council swept aside the bureaucratic hurdles facing Crossroads opening a micro-brewery downtown.

Foodie Fridays started in 2016 in Veterans Plaza in front of city hall, encouraging local residents to get out, mingle and support the local restaurant industry.

Love it or hate it, the granite balloons public art installation is in place next to Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.

Love it or hate it, the new downtown parking rules bring stability and order after years of chaos and confusion. On-street parking is free for up to three hours anywhere downtown to accommodate residents shopping and conducting business downtown, forcing downtown workers to stop moving their cars all day and park properly in a city lot. To no one's surprise, the vacancy rate in downtown parking lots has gone from 24 per cent to 13 per cent.

Still with parking, the city has switched to angle parking on Second, Fifth and Seventh Avenues, with corresponding improvements to the nearby sidewalks to help pedestrians cross these streets safely. Fourth Avenue has been opened to two-way traffic and doing the same to Second Avenue is in the works.

And there's more to come.

Now that residents approved the construction of a new pool and fire hall, what to do with the land where the current Fire Hall No. 1 and Four Seasons pool sit? More development? Closing the street and making a downtown park linking Veteran's Plaza to Canada Games Plaza?

City council is also working with AWAC (An Association Advocating for Women and Community) to renovate the Economy Inn on Third Avenue at Edmonton Street into 30 units of affordable rental housing, where clients could stay anywhere from three months to three years to help their transition from homelessness to independent living.

Finally, there is the $2.5-million upgrade planned for the main entrance of the Prince George Public Library, a project more than 35 years overdue. That will likely begin once the work at the Marriott next door is done.

Yes, much of that development is either all or partly public money but there is significant private sector spending there, too, demonstrating a broader confidence in the present and future of Prince George's city centre.

Downtown still needs work but the last three years have seen impressive steps forward after more than three decades of empty talk.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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