A failed experiment in urban renewal

Victoriaville mall opened in 1980 in hopes of saving Thunder Bay's failing south core. It didn't work out that way. 

By Ian Pattison

An earlier version of this column appeared in the print edition and on the website Oct. 24.

Spare a thought for good intentions and failed rescue missions. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s when times were really good, cities began to encourage the development of shopping malls to capitalize on a retail boom. This had consequences that, in hindsight, they should have foreseen.

For every shopping dollar spent in malls, one less dollar was spent in traditional downtown cores. Thunder Bay was among communities that followed this trend and zoned the vast intercity area for retail development.

When the sprawling Intercity Shopping Centre and subsequently other malls began sucking the lifeblood out of the old Port Arthur and Fort William downtowns, councils decided on a remedy.

They would build malls downtown.

And so we got Keskus Harbour Mall between Red River Road and Pearl streets and Victoriaville Centre built over top of Victoria Avenue, the south side’s main drag. They should have been a success. After all, they allowed shoppers to browse storefronts despite rain and snow outside.

Yet, for reasons that are the subjects of deep human behavioural analysis, local shoppers gradually abandoned their new digs, preferring the convenience (and free parking) of the malls in intercity.

The former Port Arthur suffered a serious blow in 1997 when Eaton’s closed its popular store, removing one more reason to visit the downtown. With vacancy rates rising, Keskus was demolished in 1999 to make way for a new Ontario casino -- which, by the way, continues to suck money from the pockets of gamblers that would otherwise be spent in local stores and restaurants.

Victoriaville presented a more complex problem. To try to stem growing vacancies, the City of Thunder Bay moved offices into the mall, including health and social services. This couldn’t save a decaying neighbourhood that caused many locals to view Victoriaville as the main reason their former main street was no longer busy and fun. ‘Tear it down’ has been the mantra for years.

This week, council finally relented and voted to demolish Victoriaville with redevelopment using trees, benches, lighting and public plazas to be completed by 2024.

Will this serve to match the successful revival of the north side downtown? Again, zoning will play a role. The former Port Arthur is zoned as the entertainment district which has attracted a raft of great shops and restaurants. The south side remains zoned institutional with a big, new courthouse to match local crime rates, and multiple social services. Thunder Bay’s notorious crime and substance abuse issues infiltrate the south core and some councillors question what will happen to those folks without Victoriaville where drug dealing at the main entrance is common.

A south core renewal advisory committee will be struck to try to ensure community housing and public safety are included in the project alongside business development, some of which still operates and indeed thrives despite the challenges.

Tearing the roof off Victoriaville won’t magically revive the neighbourhood. Public participation on the committee alongside business and councillors presents an opportunity and a challenge to do it right this time.

SOUTH OF THE BORDER, TRUMP’S IN TROUBLE

Time to go out on a limb. It’s a shaky limb that might break and send a prediction crashing to smithereens. But here goes: Donald Trump will not win the U.S. presidential election in nine days’ time.

Here’s why.

Despite Democrat Joe Biden’s 11-point lead in national polls, and his lead or strong contention in many key swing states, a popular refrain is to point to polls that showed Hilliary Clinton’s 4.8-point lead at this point in 2016.

Pollsters say they learned their lesson. Today they count the white, non-college-educated voters they ignored four years ago, voters who adore Trump, and still Biden appears to have a lock on the presidency and the House while the Senate race is punctuated by Democratic fundraising that has Republicans worried.

In big, red Texas, Trump is ahead by only 0.9. Did his argumentative, fib-filled debate performance Thursday night buttress that or hamper it? Other states will govern what happens Nov. 3.

A relatable economic future for those heartland, south-of-the-Great-Lakes states from Minnesota to Pennsylvania is crucial. Give them something to vote "for." Building E-cars is going over well in Canada and Biden made a convincing case Thursday to transition oil and gas states to renewable energy with federal help to slow the frightening pace of climate change and create millions of new jobs .

For now, green energy potential still resonates as more dream than reality for those directly connected to fossil fuel employment. That gives non-believers something to vote “for” in Trump who likes to reject science on all fronts, including climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, his biggest failure as president and Biden’s biggest opening.

While Biden is polling strongly, there will always be hesitation as voters get closer to drawing that "X" on the ballot. It's like the bride walking down the aisle who starts to think the old boyfriend was more fun than this dud at the altar.

Elections aren't decided by the hard-core political animals who park their ballot car in the same spot every day. So when we consider sway voters, it's important to ask what are they voting against and what are they voting for.

In Trump, they're voting for American interests above all else, albeit with an extremely short-sighted and narrow view. They're voting against Big Washington and the insensitive political-bureaucratic machine that never seems to worry about what they worry about.

In Biden, they're voting against Trump and the hostile, destructive politics of division that impede progress and compromise civility. They’re voting against a leader without a shred of decency.

Now, the $64-million (or 270-electoral vote) question: What are you voting for if you vote for Biden?

A measure of calm? Yes.

Covid policy that hears and respects expert opinion? Yes.

Climate policy that also hears and respects expert opinion? Yes.

These qualities are not enough for many voters. And rightly so, because at the end of the day you gotta put a roof over your head and food on the table.

In the end it will come down to a measure of character. Biden has it, Trump doesn’t even know what it is. Leading Republicans have been abandoning the president in surprising numbers. But reporters always find die-hards in funny hats who wouldn’t think twice about how they’ll vote. Which is the conundrum. How many of those are there versus how many who crave change?

Look at what’s happened so far in light of the polling that heavily favours Biden. Nearly 50 million Americans have already voted and only about 3 per cent of the electorate remains undecided.

Data nationally and in some of the most competitive states indicate that these early votes have a significant and in some cases very strong Democratic lean, the Washington Post reported Saturday. Early turnout is especially striking among young voters who commonly vote at lower levels but lean significantly toward Democrats when they do vote.

The overall numbers suggest a record turnout ahead. And higher turnout generally favors Democrats.

If Trump does pull out a win, the U.S. system of checks and balances was constructed with great forethought and consideration by the founding fathers. Perhaps they envisioned a president like Trump when they designed it. Despite the struggles, the setup has served the nation well over the past four years, holding things together even better than DJT's girdle.

But I don’t think that will be necessary. I think that enough people have had just about enough of Trump to give him the boot.

Us Canadians shouldn't be seen to be interfering in the U.S. election. That's up to Americans . . . and Russians . . . and Ukrainians . . . and probably the Chinese Communist Party. But we certainly have an interest in the outcome next-door. Biden is our best bet, and theirs.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs. Thanks to Greg Giddens, managing editor of this newspaper, for his contributions to this piece.

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