Huntsville Council has a tough decision to make this week, at least I hope they make it. The COVID-19 pandemic, as most people know by now, has turned things upside down. We are, so far, relatively fortunate, but nevertheless there are serious concerns here.
One of these is the future of our downtown business core.
While many businesses have, during the past few months, endured serious financial challenges, few have been greater than those in the retail sector, with the exception of grocery stores, primarily the larger ones, who have thrived.
In our downtown core, most of the retail outlets are not particularly large and the vast majority are independently owned. During the past eighteen months, on top of the pandemic lockdown, they have endured sewer and water construction on the east side of the swing bridge that has made it more difficult for people to get downtown. Many businesses on King William Street, which has really become an extension of our downtown area, are in the same boat, more so perhaps at the moment because that is where sewer, water and road construction is currently taking place.
Next year, however, Main Street is scheduled to be torn up for new sewers and also for redesign with a Streetscape Plan, approved by council, intended to revitalize the downtown business core which in many ways is the heart of our community. Both of those initiatives are necessary and important.
The hard question, however, that council must come to grips with is whether Main Street retail businesses and some along King William Street can survive two consecutive years of disruption and economic hardship, or whether, with all that has happened, these projects should be postponed for at least another year.
Already, since the beginning of this year, at least three businesses on Main Street have closed their doors and will not be reopening. Some of the well-established stores can hold out longer than others but I have talked to a number of retailers, who contribute significantly to our downtown core, who are holding on by their fingernails and will most likely not be here if construction and disruption continues for another year.
On this one, I am happy not to be in council’s shoes. It is a tough decision to make. It is work that has to be done. Do they plow through and get it over with for more short-term pain but long-term gain? Or do they stretch it out, allow for some breathing space, recovery time, and at least a degree of financial stability?
The important thing is that a decision needs to be made and, equally important, a plan put in place to deal with the significant problems that will arise in either instance. The vision is there. The plan is not. Retailers on Main Street need to know what the strategy will be, how it will affect them, and what programs and assistance will be available to assist those that need it, in a reasonable transition.
Of course, this is not Huntsville Council’s decision alone as, sadly and in my view inappropriately, Main Street responsibility does not belong to them, but rather to the District of Muskoka. But it is our council’s role to decide what is best for our community and to deliver that message loudly and clearly to the District.
Municipally, the last few months have been very difficult and time consuming, particularly for Mayor Karin Terziano but also for our council and Town staff. There have been a myriad of challenges and enquiries, and their efforts to keep things running smoothly and to make hard decisions that have kept us relatively safe, while not garnering a lot of attention, have been effective.
However, as we move into more open stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to hear more from our elected officials about how things are going to look moving forward. How is our community going to change? What are our challenges and what are our opportunities? Basically, what’s the plan?
For starters, in addition to protecting our downtown retail sector, we need an economic outlook from council, related to how we have come through the pandemic and the resulting lockdown. Has the municipality saved money or has it cost us more? What are the financial challenges moving forward and what does this do to infrastructure and other priorities? What services that the Town currently offers will change as a result of what we have learned in the past six months? What does our short-term economic future as a municipality look like and how will it be managed? What help do we need that we are not currently getting?
We also need to know what the plan is for future growth in Huntsville. Clearly the pandemic is bringing people north. As one agent put it to me, the real estate market is booming here. Most houses put on the market, especially waterfront properties, sell within days of the sign going up.
New construction is high now and will only get higher. There is opportunity here, but how do we embrace it in a manner that protects our environment, limits clearcutting, provides economic stimulus and opportunity, and includes a strategy for much-needed affordable housing for those who work here? We need a plan.
And then there is our hospital and Fairvern Nursing Home, neither of which are within the direct jurisdiction of Huntsville Council, but are such important community services that municipal leadership and advocacy become absolutely essential.
We haven’t heard a peep out of Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare, since the beginning of the pandemic. So much public health care money has been spent because of the virus, one must wonder if there is still a possibility that the ambitious plan for two new hospitals in Muskoka is at all viable. We need to find this out and our council needs to be ready once again to defend the need, under any circumstances, for a fully acute care hospital in Huntsville.
The good news may be Fairvern. With the spotlight during the pandemic on the need for better long-term care facilities and with Fairvern well along in their plans for expansion, there may be an opportunity here to see this through to completion. This too will proceed much more effectively if Huntsville Council stays on top of it with visible leadership and support.
It’s understandable and necessary to keep one’s head down during a crisis and simply concentrate on what needs to be done under those circumstances. But as we enter a new phase in this pandemic, it is time for council, and indeed the rest of us, to think about and to talk about the future; to learn from the past but not dwell on it; to keep safety measures in place as long as we need them, but to also visibly plan for positive and rewarding times ahead where there is opportunity and hope.
That requires a vision and a plan. In this community, we must count on Huntsville Council to provide it.
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