Things'll be great when they fix downtown

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

London may have a 20-foot hole in its core, but city council members say it is no doughnut.

The City of London wants to rejuvenate downtown by offering new business incentives to innovative entrepreneurs.

These initiatives were in response to concerns raised by citizens about London’s core becoming stagnant and empty while businesses on the outskirts continue to flourish. Londoners are increasingly familiar with a doughnut analogy; the city has a delectable perimeter with a hole in the centre.

Ward 13 councillor Judy Bryant hoped the incentives " which were approved by council Tuesday night " would help bring a variety of entertainment, residential, and specialty ventures into the area.

Bryant listed restaurants, cafés, theatres, niche retailers, boutiques, pharmacies, grocery stores and other “anchor destinations” as targets of the incentive program.

“We want to make sure downtown is vibrant, strong and healthy,” City of London Controller Gord Hume said. “We certainly don’t want closed, darkened buildings.”

Hume described three new programs offered by the city.

“We have a 10-year interest-free loan for businesses who upgrade buildings to meet building code.”

The program encourages property owners to preserve heritage buildings and to fix-up dilapidated properties.

Bryant said many of downtown’s older buildings do not meet building standards and the upgrades will attract both customers and residents.

A second initiative gives grants to companies that choose to spruce-up their store fronts. Hume said this “facade improvement program” was an excellent way to enhance and preserve London’s streetscape.

Eddy Phimphrachanh, owner of Thaifoon Restaurant on Dundas Street, said he had already used a similar grant from the municipal government. “It really draws you in to invest downtown, when the city offers to lend a hand.”

Finally, Hume said city council would help businesses convert upper floors into residences.

Tom Bird, president of Allied Construction " a company responsible for many downtown building projects, stressed that residential buildings are needed to sustain downtown’s business community.

“We need people downtown 24/7, not just eight until five.”

But the incentive programs are just one part of a 10-year plan to inject some much-needed energy into the city’s cultural centre.

Other initiatives such as the Downtown Task Force " a group of business representatives appointed in September " will present findings to the City of London in February.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Phimphrachanh concluded. “Downtown is growing " lots of new businesses are opening.”

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