It’s been nearly five months since Racolta Jensen LLP made the move from the Pinebush Road area to its new location downtown into a refurbished building on Dickson Street and Noah Jensen couldn’t be more pleased.
“In COVID times it has been a blessing here. We have nearly twice the square footage, we were able to customize the space to ensure physical distancing - which was great for privacy in either case,” says Noah, a partner in the accounting firm. “We have three times the number of employees that we had when we moved into the last location, so it was necessary.”
The company’s move to Dickson Street, made possible in part through the City of Cambridge’s Building Revitalization Program (BRP) which funds up to 50% of the cost of the eligible work on the building, is a great example of how business owners and the City’s Economic Development office can work together, specifically when it comes to revitalizing the downtown cores.
That process is set to get an even further boost with the introduction of the proposed CIP (Community Improvement Plans) Programs. The new program, which consists of five components, four of which are grant-related and stackable, is set to become a powerful resource in the City’s toolkit towards instigating major investments in our core regions.
The creation of the Core Area Transformation Fund in 2019, which was formally approved in June of last year, was the impetus says James Goodram, Director of Economic Development for the City of Cambridge.
“One of the key investment colours within that fund was to look at private sector stimulus in the downtown cores,” he says, noting some of the current programs to stimulate revitalization have been in place since the late 1990s. “We felt the time was right to introduce some new programs to the cores and help us make that business case for the LRT coming into the core areas. We need more people living and working there.”
Noah agrees and says a negative narrative which has targeted the downtown core can dissipate with programs like these in place to bring new life and investment into the centres.
“Homeless people exist in every community, not just here. Be part of the positive solution and cut out the negativity,” he says. “Attracting more professional services firms that will use the core areas during the day times, enticing unique and diverse businesses that will be committed enough to offering their products and services offering normal business hours will be to everyone’s advantage.”
James says the core area of any community is a great way to gauge its economic health.
“Whenever you travel to a city, you typically go the downtown. I really think that the core areas are a reflection on the health of the overall city,” he says, adding a healthy core is not only vital for bringing in new investment but encouraging existing businesses to expand. “I would say 80% of your economic growth comes from companies that are already in your community.”
James says businesses looking to expand and attracting new talent is key for most of them.
“One of the ways we can help in attracting people to our community that want to live, work and play here is by having these vibrant core areas. What benefits the downtown areas benefits the whole community.”
Noah agrees and says a sense of community doesn’t really exist at a ‘SmartCentre’ or strip mall.
“Downtown provides a venue for artistic and niche stores that are fun to shop at rather than shopping for staples, and it provides an area to dine and drink in where you will run in to neighbours and friends, That applies to Preston, Hespeler and Galt as I’ve worked and lived in all three,” he says. “Personally, I’ve not filled my car with gas in over a month and I’ve improved my own personal well-being mentally and physically in walking to work and running errands all within walking distance from my home and office.”
James says having the CIP Program in place ‘levels’ the playing field for potential investors who are willing to take on refurbishing a downtown building, especially a heritage structure which often comes with additional and often unforeseen costs.
“It is a lot easier to go in and build a building on a greenfield site or larger site,” he says, adding downtown buildings often offer limited space when it comes to renovations.
Noah, a former member of the Economic Development Advisory Committee, says he’s grateful in the help he received from the Economic Development Department’s Invest Cambridge office in bringing his new office together.
“Our building was a restaurant before we moved in, so the only remaining piece of what we bought that is original is the roof and brick walls,” he says. “We had to think outside the box to find a building that was just right, and it was a bonus that for the same cash flow we had in our last location we could renovate something customized for us. Our staff and clients have been very pleased with the outcome of the building.”
James says the CIP Program will offer even more opportunities for existing businesses to expand and developers, the majority of whom embrace the city’s heritage buildings.
“One of the big selling features is our heritage properties. That’s something that has attracted developers to the community,” he says, referring to the creation of the Gaslight District as a prime example of a great mix of new construction with heritage properties.
He says the CIP Program works hand in hand with other downtown revitalization initiatives, including its Ambassador and enhanced security programs.
“There’s no one silver bullet. It’s going to be a combination of all these things that we’re doing. From the financial perspective, I expect these programs we’re offering kind of cover off that financial piece to encourage development,” says James, noting the positive reaction he’s received from many local groups, including the BIAs, the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Advisory Committee. “The time is right, and we want to see our core areas evolve and want to see more investment in them.”
City council will vote on the CIP Program at its May 25 meeting. If approved, it will then be sent for final approval to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in June.
“People underestimate the value of having a progressive core area and community with nice public art, unique restaurants, art galleries and artisanal stores,” says Noah, who encourages other businesses to look closer at the downtowns. “If you are a business-person who has employees, your employees will be happier residing in a town that has a vibrant core area they can have as a destination (probably more in post-COVID times).”
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