Let’s Talk – Lifting our downtowns back up, post-pandemic

Welcome to our latest Let’s Talk for Chamber Members, where we spotlight important issues affecting local businesses like yours, in a spirit of dialogue to be shared amongst us.

Our Niagara downtowns are vital commercial hubs, where people congregate, work, socialize — and, increasingly live. And this is where we’d like your input.

While these cores in south Niagara have always faced unique challenges, the pandemic was an epic one. Businesses closed for months and often relied on government financial help.

Workers began staying at home in hybrid-work arrangements, as office space, banks and buildings shuttered. Streets became less robust; a pattern some feel has continued in 2023 in traditional downtown centres like Welland, Port Colborne, Niagara Falls, Fort Erie and elsewhere. Many businesses are also struggling to repay pandemic-era loans by deadline.

Meanwhile, social concerns have beleaguered some areas, with issues of homelessness, open drug abuse and occasional violence concerning downtown businesses and others frequenting there.

Still, there are also opportunities as efforts mount to deal with social issues and homelessness, and as our Canadian population surges. Condo and multi-residential developments are on the rise in Niagara downtowns, with plenty of former commercial and office space available for new and innovative developments, to supply these areas with more shoppers, consumers and a one-stop vibrancy that’s always made them attractive.

Most of us owning commercial and other enterprises in south Niagara’s downtowns have evolved and remain thriving post-pandemic, of course.

One of them, is Taps Brewhouse on Queen Street in downtown Niagara Falls, which has prospered in its location for years. Owner Eric Martin has also witnessed some of the downtown challenges in post-pandemic times. There are too many vacant buildings and significant empty office space, with social issues driving people out.

Meanwhile, Niagara Region’s state of emergency for homelessness, mental health, and addictions will remain in place for a time as of late July, after a motion to change it to a “state of crisis” was referred back to the public health and social services committee recently.

Martin says, “municipalities need to invest more in their downtowns and push vacant-building owners to do more.” Residents also have a role to support their downtowns. And to all that end, he acknowledges, “It will take some effort.”

“I think we are going to see a few years of pain,” he said. Skyrocketing interest costs and rents are also going to close more businesses. Through this, most of our municipalities are cash- strapped and will not be adding new spending, including possible downtown improvement efforts, Martin predicts.

Still, we have an exciting chance to make a difference, in these post-pandemic crossroads: What do we want our south Niagara downtowns to look like in five years, and how can we be innovative in encouraging positive transformation?

What are trends in downtown development to assist business owners, as the region and other levels of government move toward more affordable and attainable housing — in preparation for a population boom in Ontario, amid brutal housing price-inflation and a severe lack of supply?

Dolores Fabiano, executive director of the South Niagara Chambers of Commerce, says the situation in these downtowns can rapidly pivot to positive, as we work together alongside new investors, and municipal and other stakeholders to chart a new course.

“The timing is right for serious changes to help our members — especially in these cores,” Fabiano said. “It also needs to happen fast, before things slide further. Part of these efforts is the Chamber creating ongoing synergies and initiatives for both well established businesses as well as new businesses to keep us all prospering, through this phase. We will also advocate diligently for needed downtown improvements and initiatives.”

We’d like to know what you think. What is your situation— especially if you run a business downtown, live or work there. What can be done to make things better?

Please e-mail us your thoughts, which we’ll compile in an upcoming Let’s Talk summary accessible to members— you can remain anonymous if you’d like.

Until then, enjoy the rest of your summer and if you’re planning a vacation, have fun and chill- ax!

Written by Don Fraser for the South Niagara Chambers of Commerce

Greater Fort Erie Chamber of Commerce

Fort Erie ON

Monday to Thursday: 9:00am–4:30pm Friday: 9:00am - 12:00pm

Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce

4056 Dorchester RdNiagara Falls On L2E 6M9

Monday to Thursday: 9:00am–4:30pm Friday: 9:00am - 12:00pm

Port Colborne-Wainfleet Chamber of Commerce

296 Fielden Ave.Port Colborne ON L3K 3K1

Monday to Thursday: 9:00am–4:30pm Friday: 9:00am - 12:00pm

Welland/Pelham Chamber of Commerce

800 Niagara St , Unit R56Welland ON L3C 5Z4

Monday to Thursday: 9:00am–4:30pm Friday: 9:00am - 12:00pm