Sunday, April 29, 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fixing Downtown?

How does Peterborough improve our downtown? Seems to be a pretty popular question and everyone’s got their two cents worth to throw in to the mix. He’s mine.

First, I think people have some pretty high expectations of what our downtown should be. But what you got to keep in mind is; Peterborough is not Toronto, it’s not Ottawa, it’s not Montreal. Peterborough is a city in the middle of rural Ontario with a small population. It is for the most part a blue collar town where the majority votes conservative and is more likely to be interested in sports then the arts. There is very little opportunity in the creative sector here causing a creative brain drain which draws talented young folks out of our community to the larger centers. The group of people that are involved in downtown and in the arts and in music, and that have decided to stay here, we’ve got a cool little thing going on. We’ve got to keep in mind we’ve done pretty well with what we got.

I am tired of idealists that have this, ‘if you build it they will come’ attitude that just isn’t true. If you build it, a few may come, a few may poke around then leave, but most still probably aren’t going to bother coming at all. The masses have poor taste. They listen to Nickeback, hang out at the mall and buy their art from Homesense. The champions for the downtown/independent/cultural cause are already downtown and their buying power is reflective of the current state. If you want to bring the rest of the population in, it takes more than a great town square, restored heritage buildings and some more independent shops. Someone has to sell it to them that this is where they want to shop, eat and spend their spare time. In addition people resist change, it has to be easy. There must be lots of parking, less unsavory characters about, comfortable amenities, restaurants they recognize. It has to be dumbed down and polished up. Is that really what’s best? I want to see improvements but not on those terms.

Driving unsustainable development is bad practice and just plain stupid. You have to develop the need first or else you’ll just have some lovely looking empty parks and deserted shops and cafes with for lease signs in the windows. Trying to sell Natas and Plush to a population that prefers Tim Hortons and Walmart is a pretty tremendous feat. This is a complete 180 in the culture and habits of an entire tribe of people. If we as a city want to see downtown improve, then we need to not hope to change people but to focus on developing the foundations for support by growing the faction of the population that cares. Foster the creative industry, and other industries for the matter to create good jobs that will draw in the young people and creative people with disposable incomes and the desire to live and spend their time and money in our downtown. Once that need is there, I’m sure there will be no problem finding people and organizations willing to develop a means to satisfy it, that’s the easy part.

Demonic Electronic

The beginnings of the next animation project. This attempt will be done in Adobe Illustrator.

Looking at our home town with rose coloured glasses, or in some cases, beer goggles?

First, I want to express how much I love living in Peterborough. It is a beautiful little city in the midst of a beautiful area. The cost of living is reasonable. Toronto is just over an hours drive but also just far enough away that we have our own distinct culture and our own respectable little arts and music scene. I happen to have a decent job, great friends and a lot of opportunity to get involved with my community.
In addition there are some wonderful restaurants and many independent businesses still striving in our downtown core. This is a great deal more then I can say for many of the other North American cities of similar size that I have visited in the last decade.
It’s true we’ve got a lot to be proud of. But... And, I may not be too popular for saying this, there’s a whole lot going on that isn’t so rosy and the lack of attention it gets concerns me about the future of the community.

To sum it up, there are a couple big things that really worry me about the quality of my own future here;

First, Peterborough’s unemployment rate has been hovering not far from last place among similar size urban centers in Canada. Of the job pool that we do have there are very few options for those of us in a professional field. Of course this is a trend across Ontario which has traditionally relied on the manufacturing jobs that are fleeing overseas for cheaper labour to meet he demands of a consumer culture. This is well known. But what action is being taken to find a replacement for that industry here?
A favorite topic of the Twitterverse is the rise of the creative class. Richard Florida’s beautiful utopia, a future where young smart people get paid for being creative and thinking. Knowledge based industry, is supposedly North America’s last great hope to remain relevant in business, but where is it? I see our politicians handing out grants to entice manufacturers to add or keep a handful of jobs or bringing in call centers to create minimum wage phone jockey positions. What isn’t visible to me is anyone really developing plans to attract new forms of sustainable long term industries in our region.
Young educated people that support the independent businesses mentioned above are finding that they have no choice but to leave Peterborough for city centers like Toronto and Montreal because the professional and/or creative jobs they are after just don’t exist here.

Second, there is no denying that drugs and petty crime have become rampant. I’ve owned a house near downtown Peterborough for 12 years; in the last few I have witnessed a noticeable decline in mine and nearby neighborhoods. I’ve had my vehicle broken in to multiple times now, merely to steal the change out of my ash tray but causing a great deal of damage in the process. The building my studio is in has also been broken in to and vandalized. Break-ins, robberies and even home invasions have seemed to become more and more common. Perhaps this is partly a symptom of our high unemployment. Perhaps it also has much to do with an overabundance of places for addicts to get free methadone but very few options for real treatment to kick their addictions and become functioning members of society. Bumping up police budgets is a band aid. We need to correct the root cause by getting people help and getting them jobs.

The point I really want to ensure I make is, that there is great stuff that is going here and that has happened because groups of dedicated citizens love this place and take it upon themselves to improve their own quality of life as well as those around them. The cities management and area politicians boast of the achievements of our community as if their own and love to play off and encourage this local pride, subsequently avoiding some real issues that they need to deal with. In the long run if these negative trends continue all the stuff we think is great will just not be sustainable. Young educated people, artists and professionals are going to leave to seek opportunity elsewhere and with them go the support structure for independent business, the arts and music scene, what I believe to be key factors in this Peterborough culture we all cherish so much.
I think it is great that so many bloggers, tweeters, writers feel the need to brag about how awesome our community is, because they are right. However, I would just feel more encouraged if there were a few more shit disturbers out there that were willing to take off the rose coloured glasses for a moment and challenge the city and its subsequent organizations to make some much needed improvements before we have nothing left to brag about.

Sunday, April 15, 2012