Local residents who attended the meeting on the Downtown Core Committee report Tuesday night at the Memorial Sports Centre auditorium showed great interest in—and, in many cases, some concern over—the proposed plans.
One of the most frequently referenced parts of the report was to proposed changes in traffic flow.
In particular, the recommendations to (in Phase One) make Central Avenue one-way from Scott Street south and make Church Street one-way from Mowat Avenue west to the entrance to the bridge.
According to the report, these street changes would make the Customs area a secure zone permitting traffic within it to only flow towards the U.S.
Then in a second phase, Central Avenue would be closed from Second Street to Church Street to allow for future expansion at Abitibi-Consolidated in exchange for a current section of green space and parking lots owned by the mill.
This would provide new parking behind the Mowat Avenue businesses to compensate for any lost on street spaces. Specialized parking, such as pull throughs, could be incorporated, according to the report.
And in third phase, an east-west truck route link would be created north of town connecting Colonization Road East with King’s Highway West in the Eighth Street area.
This would mean the designation of Portage Avenue as the truck route from the north of town to the U.S. and Abitibi mill.
Deane Cunningham of Green’s Furniture noted this redirecting of traffic to Mowat Avenue would “severely affect businesses” on that street—reducing parking spaces and compromising access to businesses, such as Custom Quality Sewing, which only receives deliveries off Mowat Avenue.
Furthermore, said Cunningham, if Central Avenue were closed, Mowat Avenue would become a “connecting link” roadway in the eyes of the province, meaning with would have to be upgraded to highway standards and even widened, thus reducing sidewalk space.
He noted with the current traffic flow, bridge line-ups don’t affect downtown traffic, and added that traffic flow at the border seems to be “working well” as it is.
Cunningham stressed that while some aspects of the report, such as beautification and “branding,” are positive, overall consideration must be given to everyone—not just businesses on the main street.
Bill Gushulak of Fort Frances General Supply echoed the traffic concerns, saying that closing Central Avenue would cause congestion. He felt that before Phase Two is implemented, there should be a trial period to see what would happen and “save money and aggravation.”
Gushulak noted he admired all the work that went into the report, and liked aspects such as the “Great Canadian Main Street” branding, which he felt should be developed to its fullest.
But he stressed the report leaves many questions unanswered, and the committee and town council should give themselves time to address them.
“The system is working well now,” said Tom Reid of Fort Duty-Free, in reference to traffic flow to the border, adding closing Central Avenue would be of no benefit to any business.
“I can’t understand why we’re discussing this,” he remarked.
Times’ publisher Jim Cumming said he felt the committee has come up with many ideas to improve the downtown, such as the signage and branding, as well as the relocation of the Tourism Information Centre.
But like others, he expressed serious concerns over traffic flow, feeling it “requires more thought” and citing the fact that previous councils have looked at closing Central Avenue, for instance, and opted not to with good reason.
Still another person expressing concern over traffic flow changes was local OPP detachment commander Insp. Dave Lucas, who felt making Central Avenue one-way in Phase One, and closing it altogether in Phase Two, would lead to traffic congestion.
“Central Avenue is the path of least resistance to the U.S.A.,” he noted.
Insp. Lucas also felt moving the main truck route to Portage Avenue would result in extra noise and pollution for residents along that route, and affect police and fire access routes to the north end of town.
Committee vice-chair Gary Rogozinski also read out four written submissions.
A letter from Jane Tibbetts suggested the “Welcome to Canada” archway be resurrected at the border, and any routes through the industrial areas be “Disney-fied” and made more attractive to tourists with eye-catching signs and mill tours.
Helen Williams’ letter expressed concern about a new road being built behind her mother’s home.
A letter from Doug Kitowski, meanwhile, expressed concerns over how, among other things, if the Canada Customs’ secondary inspection station at Mowat Avenue and Church Street is moved to the existing Tourist Information Centre location, trucks sent to be inspected will not be able to turn around in order to come back into Canada and have to cross the bridge again to do so.
Kitowski also felt that if Portage Avenue was made a primary truck route in Phase Three, tractor-trailers wouldn’t be able to pull over for emergency vehicles to pass them on that street.
A letter from acting Fort Frances Fire Chief Gerry Armstrong also voiced potential concerns as to how changes to traffic flow could affect fire truck access to the mill, as well as how Portage Avenue becoming a truck route potentially would block a primary response route to the north end of town.
Aside from those who’d been scheduled to speak, many in the crowd of 50-60 people stepped up to the microphone.
Resident Dawn Gustafson asked how come traffic flow plans couldn’t proceed directly to Phase Three, with a bypass to get trucks off Front Street and away from the La Verendrye Parkway.
While he agreed a new truck route has to be established, Mayor Dan Onichuk, who sits on the Downtown Core Committee, noted it won’t happen overnight.
The proposed plans are staged due to the expected costs involved, he added, noting costing hasn’t been done for nearly any of the recommended projects in the report—and any funding partnerships with the provincial and federal government have to be worked out.
“I don’t believe we have a problem,” said Anthony Kadikoff, adding he couldn’t see a reason to make major changes here.
He said, compared to many other places he’s seen in his frequent travels across Canada with the Elks, the locations of Customs, the Tourist Information Centre, and other facilities here are fine where they are.
But Kadikoff added what would get more tourists through here would be a better highway system for Northwestern Ontario.
Linda Wall, chair of the Fort Frances Children’s Complex Advisory Committee, said she continues to be frustrated by the priorities of the community.
With the such a “huge undertaking” before the town, which is bound to cost “a lot of money,” Wall felt time and money would be better spent on issues like child care and ensuring the safety of women.
Former Coun. Sharon Tibbs noted, among other things, that some recommendations may not be feasible. For instance, a request to council to lower commercial taxes means a loss of revenue to the town.
Would this mean a cut to current services?
“A lot of things in this document are battles, historically, we can’t win,” she remarked, adding those should be identified ahead of time by the committee and council.
“I don’t think there’s any battles in this document that can’t be won,” Mayor Onichuk said later in the meeting.
Tibbs also stressed there must be more public meetings before the recommendations in the report are implemented.
< *c>Next steps
In response to several questions from the audience, Mayor Onichuk explained that while council ultimately has the authority to go ahead with the recommendations in the plan, it has not approved the plan as a whole and everything it.
At this time, it only has approved a number of council-specific recommendations from the committee, including:
•agreeing to hold public meetings to inform and get input from town residents regarding downtown core initiatives being proposed (the first of which was Tuesday night);
•having the mayor and CAO commence discussions with the affected landowners to fulfill goals of the plan;
•having the Planning and Development Advisory Committee review and report back to council on the most appropriate use of lands deemed available;
•directing administration to put together an estimate of costs to fund the projects; and
•possibly directing the Administration and Finance executive committee to put together a long-term plan to reduce the commercial taxes in town.
Mayor Onichuk also stressed the town has to establish partnerships with other levels of government to undertake some projects in the report.
Rogozinski said the committee’s work isn’t through and that it is dedicated to continue working on the plans, taking into consideration input from residents and stakeholders.
Mayor Onichuk said the recommendations in the report may change in the future.
“It’s just the beginning of a long process. It’s by no means over,” he stressed.
The meeting was moderated by public school trustee Dan Belluz, and also included a Power Point presentation of the Downtown Core Committee’s recommendations by Darryl Allan, Information and Technology manager for the town.
Members of the committee in attendance included town reps Mayor Onichuk and Coun. John Albanese, Geoff Gillon (Rainy River Future Development Corp.), Chamber of Commerce reps Rogozinski and Alan Tibbetts, Doug Anderson (BIA), Susan Bodnarchuk (Re-Inventing Fort Frances), and Jean-Marc Blanc (Re-Inventing).
Missing were committee chair Patti-Jo Reid and Abitibi rep Gord Winik.
The Downtown Core Committee was first struck last year, and met between January and October of 2005 to devise a report addressing how to revitalize downtown Fort Frances.
Created as a working body under the Economic Development Advisory Committee, the committee—consisting of members of the EDAC, the Chamber, Business Improvement Association, Abitibi-Consolidated, Re-Inventing Fort Frances, and the RRFDC—met to discuss pertinent issues and formulate possible solutions to problems.
The “downtown core” was defined as the BIA zone (100-300 blocks of Scott Street), as well as the adjacent areas from the river to Second Street East, east to the Memorial Sports Centre, and west to Central Avenue.
The committee used some of the studies that already have been done in Fort Frances, such the Heritage Tourism, Re-Inventing Fort Frances, Tomorrow, and tourism, traffic, and fishing museum studies rather than commissioning a new one.
After reviewing the studies, the committee investigated barriers and opportunities in relation to issues arising.
Issues identified included traffic flow, parking, funding, museum plan support, alleys and lanes, tourist centre relocation, the public library, the town as a destination point, signage, and downtown branding.
Four sub-committees were formed to review and analyze each of these issues, which then were grouped into four sections—traffic flow, parking, alleys/lanes, and the Tourist Information Centre relocation; signage; branding and downtown issues; and council issues.
Those subcommittees met and provided final reports of their discussions and ideas, which then were compiled in the document given to town council back in November.
In March, council started to take action with a number of council-specific recommendations from the committee (as outlined above).
(Fort Frances Times)