Since its debut in 2006, the Rose Theatre has become a premiere destination for live performances with plans to become the centrepiece of a new Theatre Lane district.
As a long-time and former resident of the City of Brampton (from 1967 to 2010), I am well aware of the ongoing and well-intentioned efforts to revitalize the downtown area.
Yet, Brampton seems to suffer for all the same reasons as most areas close to Toronto — it’s unable to shake a reputation for being a bedroom community without a viable downtown.
That would appear all about to change, according to city planners and business leaders I spoke to and who recently took me on a walking tour of the downtown area.
The tour was led by Suzy Godefroy, who is the new Executive Director of the Downtown Brampton BIA; Paul Aldunate, leader of the city’s Central Area planning group and Anthony Wong, manager of strategic and enterprise services.
Walking up and down Main and Queen Streets, in and out of a labyrinth of laneways, and as far north as Vodden St., on a hot September Friday afternoon, I did notice a lot of people milling around. That I would take to be a good sign.
But I also like what I am hearing. The whole idea, says Aldunate is “to urbanize the suburban,” to bring Brampton into the big leagues.
To that, I would say, it’s about time.
It’s not lost on Aldunate and his team that the downtown is a priority, but when you are planning new subdivisions “with 300 and 400 new homes that go in at a time,” your attention does get divided.
(The City of Brampton boasts a population of about 600,000, and has added 3,469 new homes so far this year, making it easily the biggest builder of new homes in the entire GTA. Source: Trimart).
First up is the laneway improvement project which aspires to better connect the downtown’s extensive network of walking routes and to put flowers and pretty landscaping into every nook and cranny. It is, says Wong, all part of an elaborate downtown beautification plan.
The hope is that the plan, which also includes extensive restoration of the facades of the City’s heritage buildings, will be approved by council next year for a target Spring 2018 construction.
Property owners and tenants are eligible to receive façade improvements grants of up to $20,000 per property in the downtown, $30,000 for corner lots and $50,000 for heritage properties.
But there is more to it than meets the eye, insists Wong. It’s also about gettting local residents to rediscover the downtown.
“The formation of (a network) of laneways is in its infancy but the BIA has begun using these places for their special events like classic cars and a recent ‘Night in the Lane’ event,” says Wong.
Furthermore, a proposal for a Wendel Clark sports bar will become “the first fruits of a vision for more patios in and around the Garden Square” located at the intersection of Main and Queen, he adds.
To be fair, though, the City of Brampton has done some things very well. Among highlights:
• A large oversized LED screen has been a great meeting place for movie nights and showing sporting events such as the Euro Cup 2016 final;
• Gage Park does get families to come downtown with its music in the park series in the summer and an open air skating oval in the winter;
• Rose Theatre has been a cultural success, attractng its share of big-name live performers and acts.
The biggest hope for the downtown area, however, is yet to come. The Riverwalk project has been identified as a top priority for City mayor Linda Jeffrey and is seen as the missing link in helping breathe new life into a tired part of town.
With it, city leaders are talking about transforming the channel and large sections of Etobicoke Creek into a pedestrian wonderland, but the massive cost to undertake such a project has meant slow progress to date.
Mayor Jeffrey said the recent funding for studies is a good start, and at least allows the city to move forward on the project. Says Aldunate: “The next step is to secure federal and provincial funding,” in making no effort to hide his enthusiasm for the project.
Huge infrastructure projects aside, it’s ultimately about getting people to come downtown, which is not lost on the BIA’s new director Godefry. And to get people downtown, it starts with food.
The makeup of the city and its diversity, she says, is one of the city’s biggest assets, as residents can now enjoy dining in Indian, Italian, Latin, and Mexican cuisines, just to name a few.
Godefry believes that a recent influx of new restaurants has ignited the spark to bring people back downtown, that and a steady stream of events — Taste of Brampton and a Downtown Christmas Market — have also helped.
Restaurant owners and retailers I spoke to would appear to be on board. Two restaurants (La Catrina and The Queen Gypsy) actually got their start as simple booth sat the downtown’s area highly successful Farmer’s Market before opening up a full restaurant location.
“I was actually pushed into this,” admits Eddie Bachur, owner and operator of La Catrina, which serves up exotic Mexican food.
But business is good and his newly opened up restaurant is benefittng from its Main St. location, he says.
A similar story is offered by Slavica Bodiroga who, with her sister, recently opened up The Queen Gypsy on Main St. With its eclectic feel, she tells me she is hoping to bring “a Bloor Street Village-type of vibe” to the downtown area.
The one missing ingredient in all this is retail, but that could also be changing, says Deborah Kenny of Kenny Jewellery,
Last Thursday, Sept. 22, Kenney and other merchants hosted “A Night In The Lane”, an event featuring fun, food and live music in the laneway and parking lot adjacent to their shops.
Downtown attractions like the Farmer’s Market, the LED screen and new restaurants have really helped to bring people back to the downtown area, says Kenney, who worked in a downtown store from 1987 to 1995 before returning to the storefront jewelry business in 2012. “It really does seem to be turning around,” she says.