It's time to get serious about the downtown core, Squamish's mayor says.
For years, District of Squamish reports, studies and research on revitalizing downtown have piled up at city hall. They're all parts of the puzzle, Rob Kirkham said. Now it's time to assemble it.
“We are moving beyond just commenting on the downtown and saying how important it is,” he said.
Last week, Kirkham announced council's 20-year action plan to transform Squamish's commercial core. Through a list of initiatives, the plan aims to marry the heart of downtown with its oceanfront — a missing piece of the community's image, Kirkham said.
Connectivity is a main theme — the linking of trails and the Mamquam Blind Channel to Squamish's heart. The plan also highlights arts and culture, calling for public amenities and spaces, public art and more events to take place in the town's centre.
“We are going to do some groundwork for future councils,” Kirkham said, noting financial planning will match the specific steps.
Packaged within the action plan are draft tax exemptions and fee reductions to encourage core growth. It's a tool that has helped other municipalities ramp up construction.
In late 2010, Maple Ridge's council passed its own town centre incentive project. To date it has generated more than $77 million worth of construction building permits. Within two years, the district was ranked the fifth in per-capita investment in Canada. It created a buzz, got municipal authorities talking and landed on the District of Squamish's radar.
During last year's budget process, Squamish council identified a development incentives program as a priority. Staff were sent to the drawing board. Stakeholders were invited to workshops. A consultant was enlisted.
While some ideas were lifted from other municipalities, Squamish's draft incentives reflect council's goals, Kirkham said.
“It is not a cookie-cutter approach. It is a matter of designing then to suit what it is that you are wanting to accomplish,” he said.
The draft program targets three areas — Cleveland Avenue, its surrounding neighbourhoods (Second Avenue and Loggers Lane) and the business park. It would run for three years, with a focus on drawing commercial construction to Cleveland, mixed-use developments to downtown and new industrial buildings to the business park.
To cash in on the program, projects on Cleveland Avenue must have a construction cost above $500,000. That dollar figure jumps to $1 million in the adjacent neighbourhood and business park. Eligible projects would be 100 per cent tax exempt on the difference in value increase on the municipal portion of the property for five years. Building permit fees would be sliced in half and development cost charges reduced by 20 per cent for downtown construction.
The plan also proposes to waive parking requirements in the Cleveland area and launch a fašade improvement program in partnership with the Downtown Squamish Business Improvement Association (BIA).
Altogether, it's an weighty initiative, said Scott McQuade, president of Downtown Squamish BIA.
“I am probably most impressed that they see us as the business and cultural heart of town,” he said.
Densification of the downtown core is the key to creating a viable, lively centre, McQuade said. The downtown association is examining ways its members could financially back the fašade improvement program, he noted.
The incentives and action plan demonstrate to investors and developers that the district means business, Kirkham said.
“I see this as almost a legacy process,” he said.