Without a core, our city doesn’t have a heart

I’ve lived here for 65% of my life. In those four decades, I’ve been a committed downtown shopper out of the belief that doing business in our city core is an important part of the fabric of who we are.

When we moved here in 1971, there were no malls in Barrie. Dunlop St was a huge bustle and once I figured out how the Five Points worked, things started to make sense. There were three grocery stores downtown in those days.

Five drug stores. Jackson’s Grill. Owen St was a solid block of law offices. Lakeview Dairy and Restaurant was the east boundary. Central Collegiate was the west boundary. Canadian Tire and three levels of Robinsons Hardware. Armstrong’s Hardware. There were gas stations, restaurants, clothing shops, shoe stores, gift stores, banks, trust companies, a coffee shop, and three bars… The Simcoe, The Queen’s and The Wellington. Four, if you include ‘The Yank’ up on Collier St.

Jack Oates had a paint and wallpaper store. George Johnstone sold music instruments. Reeves Jewellers and Sears. Monarch Appliance and Repair. Art Rogers owned Barrie Furniture on Mulcaster St. There were two pizza places… Pizzeria Italia (still owned by the Genovese family) and Roberto’s. There were two great menswear stores, Craigs and Stephens. Woolworths. A lighting store. Barrie Second Hand Store was almost a full block.

I could go on and on, if my memory let me. In 1973 when the Bayfield Mall opened, the erosion began as shoppers flooded to Bayfield St to shop ‘indoors’. By the early 80’s Barrie formed its first Downtown Improvement Board and streetscape development began.

Despite mall development, the downtown did reinvent itself and got commercially healthy again in the early 90’s. Then it became boutique stores, privately owned and offering unique experiences. There were still clothes, gifts, banks, coffee shops, and bars. But the drug stores disappeared. The grocery stores and the hardware stores moved away. Big companies bought out little companies and moved to the malls. Jack Oates died.

Today, we as a community face a watershed that is similar to the one we faced in the early 80’s. I attended a public meeting Monday night where a smattering of people listened to a planner and then pleaded with City Council to introduce a zoning amendment that would prohibit certain types of businesses from setting up too close to each other. The council chambers should have been jam packed for this meeting.

To have a healthy downtown we need to have people living here. To have people living downtown, we need to have schools (and yet the Board of Education is about to close both of them down). We need to have places to shop; yet, every week another ‘shop’ has closed. City leaders have given us a fabulous waterfront, beautiful hiking, walking and biking trails, waterfront welcome activities. Now we, all of us, as people who live in and love this city need to come together in a spirit of positive planning to insist on development that will make a difference to our downtown.

Name calling, accusing, berating, belittling won’t achieve any outcome at all. Seeing a big picture, listening to all sides of the issue, developing meaningful community groups that are solutions-based and then embracing their ideas at all levels of government will go a long way to solving an issue that has become desperate, in my view.

It’s going to take co-operation. It’s going to mean we all have to get behind the same challenge and be on the same side of it before we’ll roll the problem out of the way.

I think, as a community, that we’re up for the challenge.