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Downtown growing pains

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Trevor J. Adams, Photo: Tammy Fancy

Trevor J. Adams, Photo: Tammy Fancy

Running a small business is a stressful affair at the best of times—so imagine how your stress would skyrocket if with little warning your business became virtually inaccessible to customers. It can happen anywhere: roadwork and construction are inevitable. But it’s a particularly frustrating problem for downtown businesses.

“Construction is one that we get the most calls from our members about,” says Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. “It’s the first time in 30 years we’ve experienced this kind of activity. People are excited, but there are concerns… We’ve had a lot of occurrences this summer and not all at the Nova Centre. Earlier this summer, HRM told us on a Wednesday that Barrington Street would be closed for the weekend.”

The issue came to a head in late August, when businesses on Market and Prince streets learned, via Twitter, that their streets would be closed for two weeks for crews from EllisDon to work on the new convention centre. “That communication is the big frustration,” MacKinnon says. “The Market Street closure hit us out of the blue. People must know months in advance when they’re going to be shutting down a street for a giant crane. It’s not the sort of thing you can do on short notice.”

Developers are supposed to give residents and businesses on a street ample notice before a closure. In local media, an HRM spokesperson admitted that didn’t happen in this case. But even when developers do follow the rules, street closures take a big toll on businesses. “If you can’t have walk-by traffic, there are real monetary issues,” MacKinnon says. And there’s no compensation, from developers or the municipality, for lost business.

MacKinnon tries to work with contractors, to help them understand how their actions affect downtown businesses. “The sooner you can communicate, the sooner you can adjust things,” he explains. “We’ve had some success, but it’s not always smooth.”

He points to a win in getting crews on the Nova Centre site to change the time they pump out their porta-potties. “They were emptying them at noon on Friday,” he says. “You can imagine how that went over on a hot summer day, with the restaurant patios full… People were running inside. Many contractors just have no idea how business works on Argyle Street. They were just doing it at the time it was convenient for them. Now they do it at a different time.”

MacKinnon says he tries to remember, and remind his organization’s member businesses, that the work is short-term pain for long-term gain; the spinoffs from a new convention centre will eventually offset the cost of the closures. “Businesses, developers and landlords are all members of our organization and they’re all frustrated,” he says. “Everyone is focused on getting their work done, so communication is paramount.”

And he suggests something that might take some of the sting out of the disruptions for the downtown. “When contractors close a road improperly or spill off their site, they have to pay encroachment fees,” he says. “[Nova Centre developer] Joe Ramia has paid HRM $1 million in encroachment fees so far. One way HRM could make things better is to earmark those funds for downtown beautification and cleanup.”

CORRECTIONS

In our September 2014 issue, the story “Ghosts of old Acadia” featured two images of artist Tavla Jacobson’s work that were not intended for publication. Those images were reference shots of work in progress. To see the story with the correct photo, surf to halifaxmag.com/features/ghosts-of-old-acadia-2/.

Due to a fact-checking error, the story also misstated forensic specialist Tanya Peckmann’s role. She works with the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner’s Service, where she studies bones to determine details of sex, age, ancestry, stature, pathology and trauma. By law, only one of the province’s three medical examiners (forensic pathologists) can determine cause of death.
Halifax Magazine regrets the errors.

  • Fish Newman

    A classic example of an economic-development type’s complete lack of understanding of their so-called “constituency” – the short-term pain is someone else’s long-term gain if you go out of business. Retailers do not have the cash flow to lose for months – a number have already gone out of business. The net may be positive over the long-run, but individuals are losing out big time.

    But – when your paycheque isn’t the one on the line, it does seem like all’s well that ends well.

    “When contractors close a road improperly or spill off their site, they have to pay encroachment fees,” he says. “[Nova Centre developer] Joe Ramia has paid HRM $1 million in encroachment fees so far. One way HRM could make things better is to earmark those funds for downtown beautification and cleanup.”

    And, if you were more focused on hard lobbying for change rather than being invited to everything the Mayor is hosting, maybe you’d actually put some pressure on the city to make this happen. Unfortunately, the business association is a spineless organization not standing up for those of us with skin in the game – instead floating “ideas” in the media as though they have some value. Ideas are meaningless unless you have the constitution to deliver on them.

    So I challenge Mr. MacKinnon to stop asking and start demanding. He has had something like a decade at the helm of this organization, and DT business is still waiting for things to get better. Lots of meetings, lots of ideas, but perhaps it’s time that the downtown gets a champion that isn’t concerned with being friends with everyone who continues to treat downtown retail poorly.

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