It Will Take the Whole Village to Build a Town

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the businesses that complained the loudest about the Innisfil Beach urbanization are the “grab-and-dash” types – pizza, convenience store, coffee, that are heavily dependent on automobile traffic. As useful as these retailers are, they are not the type of business that will form the foundation for a thriving commercial core for Innisfil. So, it’s disappointing that the urbanization plan is making an abrupt u-turn to preserve the ‘cars are king’ planning mentality.

Retailers successfully convinced Council that the urbanization design was at fault for a sharp decline in business during and after construction. How drastically was traffic affected? The Tim Horton’s franchise at St. John’s Rd. indicated that “up to” 500 sales a week were being lost. The store is open 24 hours a day so that’s an average maximum of about 3 per hour, or one car every 20 minutes, that can’t be bothered turning left onto Willard Ave.  Even so, its common at mealtimes to see vehicles lined up in the drive-through, around the building, across the parking lot and out onto Willard Avenue. How much is that a factor in convincing some drivers to just keep driving to the next closest Tims?

At the 25th Sideroad, its more likely that retailers were getting a free ride over the years from the traffic being attracted by the LCBO outlet. There’s nothing like a government monopoly to attract traffic, and the traffic followed it to a new location.

What’s common about these two situations? Businesses catering to drivers are vulnerable to more competition from a wider area – bigger stores with bigger parking lots farther away. In other cities, at other times, retailers have had to adapt to drastic changes such as the creation of a car-free pedestrian mall. Many have done so successfully. No one asked these retailers, “What have YOU done to try and improve your business?”

It’s apparent that, at the 25th Sideroad, both the tenants and the landlord have to share some blame for the current state of affairs. The absentee landlord has failed to take an active interest in the welfare of his property and his tenants. The landlord did not actively recruit a new tenant, did nothing to improve the driveway access from the 25th Sideroad. The tenants lack retailing expertise, are too self absorbed, and need more vision, imagination and motivation. There are a few steps that could be taken:

  • Identify New Opportunities

It was known for months that the LCBO was relocating. The tenants could have informally canvassed their customers for ideas about a potential new tenant, and encouraged the landlord to explore the best ones.

  • Create a Destination

The tenants could work with their landlord and the business community at large to develop a new attraction to make the 25th Sideroad plaza a destination, not just another parking lot.

  • Strengthen Ties to the Neighbourhood

Businesses need to work with each other and with the community to build connections, relationships and opportunities for mutually beneficial events

It looks like retailers at the 25th have trouble envisioning anything more creative than an unobstructed parking lot. Yet, with a little imagination, there are many exciting possibilities:

  • Opportunity

Beyond pizza there is an opportunity for an Italian-style bakery-deli featuring fresh pasta, cheeses, meats, breads, and a café. One such store in Barrie appears to be very successful and could serve as a model. Other new tenants might cater more to young people. Perhaps a bicycle or skateboard shop or bicycle repair would be an attractive option.

  • Destination

Why not reconfigure some of the parking lot to more productive uses? How about a larger outdoor patio area to be shared by the pizza store and the chicken wing restaurant? Pick a theme such as gardening, flowers, music, crafts, art or food and set up a weekly Outdoor Market along one side of the parking lot during summer months. Partner with other local businesses such as nurseries, flower growers, crafters or others who could benefit from greater retail exposure.

  • Neighbourhood Connections

Retailers at the 25th could become more involved in the life of the community by sponsoring a fund-raiser. How about a walk / bike / skateboard event that ends at the plaza; Or a challenge fund-raiser to design a unique “Innisfil-style” pizza; Or a hair styling Cut-a-thon; Or a family biking event? What if Tim Horton’s sponsored a speaker series at the library across the road and then invited participants to join an informal discussion at Tim’s afterwards?

My point is that the Town’s strategic plan, Inspiring Innisfil 2020, is intended to bring together the politicians, businesses, and residents to work together on a common vision to build a better community. Retailers are going to have to get involved, get working – with each other, with the community and with politicians. It’s going to take the whole village to build a Town.

Innisfil Town Council meets tomorrow, May 11, to consider the steps and priorities needed next to implement the Inspiring Innisfil 2020 report. If you believe in the future outlined for Innisfil, please be there to show your support.