In early 2000, an informal conversation took place in the executive manager's office of the Cornwall and Area Chamber of Commerce. The topic was the decline of the city's urban core and what could be done to reverse the trend.
Although the areas in question were experiencing negative growth, the discussions revolved around some positive initiatives that had taken place. During the 1990's, the Pitt Street Promenade saw a number of revitalization projects with the re-establishment of automobile traffic, the opening of a $6.5-million provincial courthouse and the creation of an attractive parkette on the west side of the street midway between Second and Third streets.
The Le Village district also saw a number of successful projects including restoration of portions of the old Cotton Mills, new waterfront initiatives and the creation of Renaissance, a group dedicated to the revitalization of the area.
While these projects were seen as a forward step, the discussions concluded that a more formalized process could result in even more revitalization to both areas. To that end, the chamber's executive manager asked that a framework for urban core redevelopment be prepared and shared with selected stakeholders. The document was created and given the title: Heart of the City.
The chamber's initial framework focused on both the Pitt Street and Le Village districts although in defining Cornwall's urban core, it noted that other parts of the city (including Ninth Street and Brookdale Avenue) were an integral part. The framework identified four key objectives that would need to be met as part of the overall rebirth of the area.
Business was seen as key to any revitalization initiative and support for that sector was viewed as a vital component. Retention, expansion and attracting new businesses were the basis for the first objective and the priorities were to create a profile of the two business districts as part of an overall marketing strategy. Within the plan were a number of specific activities including a review of parking, traffic flow and possible financial incentives.
A revitalized urban core is one that brings to it an abundance of people, and that became the framework's second objective. A mix of flourishing businesses can be a magnet for attracting people and developing that mix would be an essential task. In addition, the plan would see businesses in both districts, particularly in the retail sector, develop uniform store hours, creating a consistency of shopping that would encourage people to visit.
Attracting and retaining business and people requires a physical environment viewed as desirable by each of the constituent groups, and that became objective three. Landscaping, lighting, green space, retaining historic architecture and a renewed sense of security were all seen as important in creating a favourable milieu for people.
One of the best ways to bring people downtown is to expand and enhance residential space, and that would include renovated single family dwellings and the construction of attractive condominiums and lofts. That was the fourth objective and it included a focus on creating an environment seen as safe and establishing the same kind of neighbourhood people come to identify with in the suburban regions.
These four broad objectives became the basis upon which a series of projects and long range growth strategies were based.
In 2001, the first projects were undertaken and derived from a partnership between the chamber's Heart of the City Committee, a Business Property Owner's Association and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC). The project was a facade improvement initiative and involved businesses on the Pitt Street Promenade.
Under a Job Creation Partnership (JCB), laid-off carpenters and labourers were given an opportunity to work during the winter months and were paid through the partnership. Interested businesses were invited to participate by agreeing to upgrade their storefronts and by investing in the required materials.
As a result of the efforts by the Heart of the City Committee and its partners, 23 Pitt Street businesses saw their storefronts attractively rebuilt, and the outcome was a visually enhanced downtown shopping area. In addition was the First Street construction of a series of attractive residential condominiums.
In 2002, an opportunity arose through the Ministry of Agriculture's OSTAR program to acquire grants specific to urban core revitalization. Working with a group of committed stakeholders, the chamber, along with the city's economic development department, prepared a proposal that outlined a comprehensive plan to revitalize Cornwall's urban core. That proposal ultimately led to the awarding of a $262,500 OSTAR grant later that same year.
In order to successfully meet the goals and objectives outlined in the OSTAR proposal, it required a total financial commitment of $563,000. The DBIA, municipality and private sources added an additional $230,000, and the remaining $71,000 was secured through various fundraising initiatives.
Forrec, a landscape design consulting firm, was hired to develop a broader concept for Heart of the City. It looked at a number of sectors in the city including Brookdale Avenue, Le Village/Cotton Mill complex, Pitt/Second/Water streets area and Lamoureux Park. It focused on building upgrades, street reconfiguration, landscaping and a more vibrant and publicly accessible park.
The OSTAR funding, coupled with the recommendations from the consultants, made it clear to the chamber that part-time coordination was no longer practical and so, in late 2003, the business organization recommended the acquisition of a full-time coordinator while it remained an active partner.
The initial OSTAR funding, coupled with financial commitments from the municipality and local stakeholders, allowed Heart of the City, its coordinator and steering committee to seek out and undertake a number of projects.
However, in late 2004, the Heart of the City, realizing that a more comprehensive plan for Cornwall's urban core was needed, engaged the IBI Consulting Group to develop an overall Community Improvement Plan (CIP) and funding strategy that would serve as a template for long-range revitalization initiatives.
At the same time, the Brownfields strategy and action plan was announced, an initiative that offered numerous financial incentives for the redevelopment of brownfield sites within the city. It is interesting to note that Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen recognized Cornwall's initiatives during a speech delivered in the Ontario Legislature in January 2005.
Referring to the 2004 budget which included up to $5 million annually in matching education property tax assistance for the cleanup of brownfield properties, he said, “Look at Cornwall, for example. Cornwall's launching a new brownfields Community Improvement Plan that fits into its goal of redeveloping and reusing brownfield properties to benefit the community in the long-term."
He continued: “Cornwall's going to use financial incentive programs to kick-start private sector development activities on former industrial and commercial lands. This is part of Cornwall's ongoing community development efforts, particularly in the city's east end.”
At that same time, a brownfield 'toolbox' seminar was held in the city to outline how financial incentives could be utilized in remediating brownfield sites. What followed from Gerretsen's remarks and the seminar and continuing into 2006 were a number of brownfield projects at various sites around the city.
All told, there were six brownfield projects undertaken with the total amount in agreement of more than $6 million.
Following that, an important announcement came on June 16. During a visit to Cornwall, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the government was forgiving the $3.7 million balance of a loan taken out by the city at the time of the Cornwall Square construction project. What was significant to Heart of the City was a condition attached to the announcement stating that the monies would be dedicated to urban core revitalization.
From the Premier's announcement of the forgiven loan came a mutual agreement by Heart of the City coordination and the city that roughly $230,000 of the amount would be used annually in support revitalization projects. As a result, and looking at Heart of the City projects approved and undertaken from early 2006 until fall 2007, more than $2 million has been invested in both commercial and residential development.
In the summer of 2007, an emotional tribute took place on Pitt Street that was a justifiable tribute to one of Cornwall's staunchest boosters. One of the Heart of the City initiatives that followed from the demolition of the former Palace Theatre allowed for the twinning of the attractive parkette created in the mid-1990's.
The east side parkette, mirroring the original one and which allowed now permitted easy access to an abundance of visitor parking, was appropriately named George Assaly Way in recognition of the long-time business professional who dedicated so much energy to promoting the downtown.
The City of Cornwall's ambitious Heart of the City initiative, supported by the municipality, the chamber of commerce, the provincial government and committed local stakeholders, has become an enviable model of how a community can re-invent itself.
Cornwall's Heart of the City program is an outstanding example of how a community and its citizens can band together in a spirit of partnership and commitment to effect positive change. From a chance conversation close to eight years ago to an enviable rebirth of the city's urban core, Heart of the City is sound testament to what can be achieved when a community works together.