Celebrated as one of the most charming Downtown’s on Vancouver Island, Downtown Courtenay and the members of the Downtown Courtenay Business Improvement Association (DCBIA) have also faced some pretty big challenges over the past 5 years.
Local businesses have experienced a direct impact of a global economic downturn and its effect of shopping, dining and tourism patterns. Many businesses have also felt the impact of the expansion of large format retailers in the region who provide one stop options designed for our fast paced lifestyles.
The debate is ongoing about whether the expansion of large format retailers is good for the local economy. While some proponents see big box expansion as a marketable asset of the Valley, others believe that big box stores and new complexes glut the market with retail space, shift commercial activity to the suburban fringe, create retail vacancies downtown, and reallocate existing retail spending from local independently owned businesses to national chains.
Additional to economic impacts, many others (including Smart Growth BC) argue that big box development negatively impacts the very culture of our communities. The informal social gathering and community building that occurs on the street as citizens shop in more pedestrian friendly commercial areas are sacrificed. Spontaneous opportunities to visit friends, hear music on the street, stop by a gallery or museum or take part in a community event are missed.
As a result of these shifting development and consumer patterns, there are countless downtowns throughout North America that have become hollow shells of their former selves. Highway interchanges and new development areas are packed with fast food, fast gas and fast shopping while Heritage Districts and Downtown Cores are forced to compete with national level marketing dollars and budgets. Downtown Associations, Chambers and other business organizations are challenged with a task both daunting and exciting – how to position their downtown as relevant, vibrant and economically viable for both investors and visitors in the face of these competing forces.
In Downtown Courtenay, the DCBIA is facing the challenge head-on and looking at ways to develop the downtown as an integral community destination as well as a retail one. “Visiting Downtown Courtenay has to be a ‘value added’ experience” says DCBIA President Mark Middleton. “Where we can’t compete with pricing we can compete with personalized service, unique selections, atmosphere, quality and a sense of community.”
In fact, the development of strong community partnerships has been at the heart of efforts to add vibrancy and optimism to Downtown Courtenay. The DCBIA has taken on several exciting new initiatives over the past year. These include backing the development of an innovative new Elevate Arts Festival, partnership with the local multi-cultural society on a Lunar New Year celebration, collaboration with the local Arts Council on Market Day and Local Colours and working with the BIABC, Fortis BC, and the Vancouver Island Aids Society to promote energy conservation and collect warm weather clothing for the homeless.
The DCBIA has also kicked off a new WinterFest celebration and invited the community at large to make Downtown Courtenay a destination for both shopping and celebration at Christmas. “WinterFest involved many community partners and its success was directly connected to the level of engagement by local businesses and organizations. The Comox Valley Regional District provided free arts and crafts focused on recycling and waste reduction, local craft fairs were heavily promoted as part of the program and local musicians took part in a ‘busking for charity project” playing music on the streets as a way to fund raise for community charities,” says Kim Stubblefield, Executive Director of the DCBIA.
WinterFest kicked off with an exciting live fire dance performance that attracted a crowd of 1000 downtown on a very blustery Friday Night. But that night set the tone for the 6 weekends that followed. Community choirs, hula-hoopers, concerts, coffeehouses, oyster tastings, food demos, magicians, snow piles and book readings were all offered up as part of this first annual event. Local galleries, the Vancouver Island Regional Library, the Courtenay and District Museum and the Sid Williams Theatre were also engaged. “The feedback was great from businesses, shoppers and visitors. The energy and festiveness of downtown was truly contagious and helped put everyone in the spirit of the season,” says Sue Smith, DCBIA Director.
This coming April 20th the DCBIA is inviting farmers and gardeners downtown for a big Earth Day plant, seed and seedling sale. The event is called “Earth Day Downtown – Backyard Farmers Unite” and the event celebrates gardening and food production in residential neighborhoods. Live music, kids’ art activities and local non-profits will also be part of the fun as the community celebrates ‘earth-friendly’ living in the heart of our urban core.
Through partnerships with the community the DCBIA is truly adding value to Downtown Courtenay for retailers, restaurateurs, visitors, shoppers and even residents of local neighbourhoods. These collaborations are powerful. Community partnerships create a ripple of awareness and participation as friends and families of community partners join the fun. Add to that the power of social media and it becomes apparent that Downtown Courtenay has a quality that money can’t buy.
To find out more about dynamic Downtown Courtenay visit www.downtowncourtenay.com.