Do we have the courage? We’ve always had the courage!

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see potential. You know how it is… you get used to what ‘is’ and complacent about what could be. Sometimes until it’s too late.

Jim Taylor, City of Barrie Director of Planning Services, was eloquent Monday night, as he looked back to community leaders in the 1960’s. There must have been townsfolk who thought they were crazy, he reasoned. Here they were, standing at the train tracks, water lapping up against the rails, and they dreamed about creating a waterfront that was for the people. They dreamed about filling in and creating parkland, about building walkways and people-friendly playgrounds. They dreamed about beaches. And it cost a lot of money at the time… $30 million.

Jim’s right. And today Barrie boasts over 7 kilometres of public waterspace, all created by the vision of a few and carried out by support of the entire community.

We’re sitting there again.

In the early 1970’s when the Bayfield Mall opened, our downtown was a two block span of empty stores and largely uncared-for buildings. People were excited for the new shopping experience patterned on the hugely successful, first-in-Canada Yorkdale, indoor shopping mall. The rest is history… two more malls later and Bayfield St became the commercial gridlock that both lured and locked shoppers. Three decxades later we¹ve recreated it to the south.

It took a few courageous downtown merchants and community leaders to stand up and share a dream. In 1976 the Downtown Improvement Area was born and ambitious streetscape renovation started.

In all of this effort, we have continued to turn our backs on the Bay. Our stores face inward to the sunny or shady sides of Dunlop St.

Last Monday, Patty Xenos and her team of consultants, each representing a specific discipline, let Barrie dream, a lot. Respected as the people place commercial designer for Intrawest (owner and developer of Whistler, Tremblant and Blue Mountain ski resorts), she brought that vision to Barrie¹s downtown. Keep the streets to the Bay open, give waterfront vistas lots of room, recreate that downtown marina feeling where people can rent rowboats and fish, build walkways and lagoons and put bistros and bakeries and boutiques there. Move our central, recognizable icon–the Spirit Catcher–to the foot of Bayfield St where it can be seen from the Bayfield Mall! Keep our 3 storey facade downtown, building higher as we step back. Create a huge park at Memorial Square, complete with a cultural and performance centre. Bring the Barrie Farmer¹s Market out and make it even bigger, by celebrating summer around the “Arch” which is really the outline of our former market building and later City Hall.

Distinguish areas… Dunlop, Mulcaster, Collier… identify city blocks. Create housing and visitor accommodation. Turn Barrie¹s backside barns and store facades into specialty shopping.

As I spoke to Patty after her City Hall presentation, she was enthused about the potential in our city.

“The more I dug into its history, the more I wanted to dig. You had a thriving marina at the foot of Bayfield St!”

Yes, we did and Cliff Carley was the last operator of it. In the 40’s for $8 a season you could rent a rowboat and take it out whenever you wanted to! Patty’s philosophy about downtowns is simply stated. There’s a strong correlation between cities that invest in their waterfronts and their downtowns and how that impacts on community¹s overall economy.

It’s true. Without a strong downtown, a community doesn¹t have a soul.

She’s given us a 15 year plan that is intended to “guide and inspire” not “limit and dictate.” Her concept gives us a front porch experience for a four-season waterfront.

The mayor pointed out Monday night that a few years ago, Toronto sat on the cusp of similar decisions. The Sky Dome in Downsview? Roy Thomson Hall in Mississauga? The Air Canada Centre in Pickering? People said it couldn’t be done. Parking would be a nightmare. Ya, Ya, Ya. But look what’s happened at Front and John streets! Theatre, shopping, food, condominiums, hotels. Life!

Patty given us a blueprint. Will we be able to set aside our self protective instincts about ‘this building’ or ‘that building’ and let this happen? Do we have the courage to look ahead and make today count?

I think so.

Thanks, City Council, for being the driving force behind letting us get there!