In recent years, the City of Prince George has invested heavily in revitalizing its downtown core - but not after years of pressure from residents and businesses.
Welcoming newcomers to Prince George was one of Laurie Hooker’s duties as a Welcome Wagon representative just three years after she moved to the city in 1986.
“I remembered how nice it was to have a Welcome Wagon visit when I arrived,” Hooker explains. “I wanted to be able to impart that on other people that were coming to Prince George.”
From welcoming gifts, to directions for amenities, to visiting newborns in hospital, Hooker was one of the first faces that many coming to the city saw. Welcome Wagon shuttered its operation in Prince George in 2015.
As both a longtime resident and a direct observer of growth in Prince George, Hooker has witnessed major shifts in the city’s development and demographic over several decades. This includes the introduction of the University of Northern British Columbia, gradual migration of British Columbians north, as well as Prince George’s unique position of being a commercial and employment hub for several smaller nearby municipalities.
“Prince George has kind of always been a place where people will come, being that it’s central and still offers the amenities of a city,” Hooker says.
Your move, PG
For several years, there has been an immense drive for the City of Prince George to revitalize its downtown core.
In September of 2008, hundreds of people marched downtown in what was known as the “Let’s Get Started” rally to raise awareness for the lack of development and homelessness support in the downtown area. Among the crowd and one of the speakers at the event was former premier Mike Harcourt.
The publicity of the rally worked, and the next year the Prince George enacted the Smart Growth on the Ground strategy. This strategy was wide reaching, and included such goals as improving the downtown atmosphere with flowers, banners, waypoints, improving road infrastructure on 4th and 5th Avenue, new buildings, and having more residents in the downtown core, among other things.
Todd Corrigall, CEO of Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, credits business owners as a major player in kick-starting the revitalization of the downtown core.
“There’s a ton of data out there from a number of different organizations that really show the vibrancy and economic performance of a community is largely placed within its downtown,” Corrigall says.
Corrigall adds that property and business owners downtown are the ones that feel the pinch when it comes to a lack of development planning in urban areas. This is especially the case with the homeless population in Prince George, which was a large focus of the Let’s Get Started rally.
“But this is showing up on their doorsteps,” Corrigall explains. “(Business owners) are taking the lead in that when it’s not their role to take the lead in that.”
Prince George’s clumsy step forward
The city has implemented many of the changes laid out in the Smart Growth on the Ground strategy, such as bike and road infrastructure, and atmospheric additions such as flower pots and banners. Corrigall also notes a facade grant program that many businesses took advantage of “to be more modern and reflective of the community.”
The city also laid out a roadmap of significant developments in the community including a new fire hall, a new pool, hotels, and a condo development with an underground parkade.
The condo and parkade was of particular interest, even heralded by a local business owner as “the missing piece” to downtown revitalization.
This is due to a stark absence of residents living in the downtown core. According to the Smart Growth on the Ground strategy enacted in 2009, the goal was to increase that number from under 200 to just under 2,000 by 2035. Census data from 2016 incorporated into city mapping shows that the number in the tract that includes the downtown area had reached just shy of 300. That number has likely increased somewhat as the population has grown, and with the opening of the Park House condos.
However, the underground parkade grabbed the attention of Prince George for the wrong reasons.
The project, proposed in 2017 as a $12.6-million deal that the city would take on itself, soon ballooned to $22.5 million three years later. In a report presented by city management to city council in late December of that year — with utility relocation and other related work factored in — the bill came to more than $34 million.
The news came as a shock to both taxpayers and city council. The city management had been using its authority to approve project budget changes without consulting city council, while still framing the project under its original estimated budget.
This resulted in the city manager stepping down, council curbing the spending power of city management, requiring more reviews of said spending, an independent review into the affair, and enacting a whistleblower policy for city employees.
What about the rest?
Despite the troubles of the George Street Parkade, the city has still found success in its widespread infrastructure plan in recent years. Several of the major projects, including the parkade, have been completed.
Michael Kellett, a senior communications officer for the City of Prince George, details two key projects that garnered widespread approval: the now completed relocation of Fire Hall Number 1, and the new downtown pool – which will serve as the replacement of the Four Seasons Pool when construction is completed.
While both were suffering due to aging infrastructure, that was only part of the issue for the fire hall.
“It was in the wrong place to serve the community,” Kellett says.
Kellett also says the city has taken steps to improve the amount of housing in the region, including in the downtown area. He points to the Park House condos as one of the more high-profile examples due to its location, but also new condos on 7th Avenue.
He says that this falls in line with an increase in the value of multi-family building permits in recent years, which has permitted an increase in the number of multi-family projects being undertaken.
“Like, when I moved to Prince George in 2008, I think the newest place I could find was built in the 1970s,” Kellett details. “We’ve had several really nice condo and apartment building developments that have been coming to Prince George just in the last five or six years.”
How has Prince George done?
Hooker explains that the city has improved in the sense of marketing itself as more desirable.
“You know, there’s a lot more amenities in our city that we didn’t have,” Hooker says. “So whether it’s shopping, or sports related… all those things weren’t there.”
When it comes to how the city can improve its downtown revitalization, Hooker cites two areas.
“I still think that we are somewhat shopping starved,” says Hooker. She says Prince George can improve when it comes to retail and food service, but also in its nightlife.
On the other hand, Hooker also echoes the strong need for homelessness support. She points out that many people displaced by natural disasters in the surrounding area often find themselves in Prince George, and increasingly so.
Kellett stresses the importance of the city’s partnership with Northern Health and BC Housing on projects such as the First Avenue Health and Housing project, among others.
“I don’t think it would be overstated, how big that will be in terms of addressing and helping to manage some of the social issues downtown,” Kellett explains. “It’s going to be fantastic for people who want to have a safe, secure place to live and raise themselves out of pretty desperate circumstances with support.”
When it comes to the future of development in the city, Kellett hints that the downtown civic area — which includes the new pool, the new Hyatt hotel and the new library entrance — will continue to be a focus of council in the future.
“There’s a notion of continuing the development of its downtown civic precinct,” Kellett says. “So I think that would be something that will be looked at by council in the years to come here.”
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