Top Ten Ways to Make St. Thomas Awesome
Well St. Thomas, set your expectations high! We have a new Mayor and Council at City Hall, our community is growing, and there is a hint of cultural transformation in the air. In our view, we think that St. Thomas can become the next great destination in southwestern Ontario for twenty-something entrepreneurs, tradespeople and makers, young families, and active retirees. Seriously, why not? Time to shake off old-fashioned, cautious thinking, and start moving fast and making stuff happen. Pull in the youth. Play to our strengths. Invest money intelligently and with vision. Transform the downtown. Reach beyond city limits. And more than anything, let’s be innovative and come up with a new approach to supporting those living with mental health challenges, addiction, and homelessness … all of those issues are intertwined and currently spinning out of control, so let’s be the leaders and make representatives from every other community in Ontario want to visit us to figure out how we made things better!
Also, we think the time has arrived to start viewing the culture of St. Thomas more as one of abundance than one of scarcity. Why not have lots of food trucks downtown? Why not have five craft breweries? Why not have more and more festivals and events? In order to stimulate this shift and encourage the community to do more together, we see three major themes emerging for the new Mayor, Joe Preston, and the City Council as a whole:
First, how can we enhance engagement in the community by drawing more residents into the heart of things to volunteer and support local events, and perhaps even boost the voter turnout rate next election? We think that this starts with making our neighbourhoods more interesting and interactive, and giving people reasons to connect with the community in new ways. So, we have a few thoughts on how to enhance our neighbourhoods city-wide.
Second, the heart of every city is the downtown, and realistically we can never expect residents to be truly proud of St. Thomas until we care enough to make our downtown better. Of course, we love what the City has done over the past few years, rebuilding and enhancing the west end of Talbot Street, including the subsurface infrastructure and aesthetic elements of the streetscape; however, at this stage, have we not just provided a more elegant stage without writing a better play? We need to turn-over the culture, and this is not a problem just for politicians to solve. We need everyone. Business leaders. Developers. Community organizers. Professionals. Artists. Youth. Our politicians just need to have the vision to assist and help solve problems, and be willing to say ‘yes’ and manage a little criticism from the always-angry few. We have some ideas for how to accelerate the transformation of downtown St. Thomas.
Third, we can be the ‘Railway City’ forever, sure, but why can we not be other things, too? We liked the consistent refrain that Joe Preston utilized throughout his campaign – more together. Absolutely, let’s do ‘more together’ … and that means moving beyond ‘official versions’ of what St. Thomas is, and creating an environment in which everyone feels encouraged to contribute new ideas. Malichi Malé, one of the other candidates for Mayor in the recent election, spoke often about how we should build a culture to support entrepreneurs and artists in the city. So, we have coined the phrases ‘More St. Thomas’ and ‘Art Together’, and plan to use those hashtags on our social media posts when we see entrepreneurs and artists doing cool stuff.
Simply put, we have forty thousand people in the city now, and we can continue to grow … and we need our Mayor and Council to possess the vision to open up and draw people together. Fortunately, it seems that Mayor Preston and his experienced Council are ready to do just that!
So, without further delay, here is our list of ‘Top Ten Ways That the New Mayor and Council Can Help Make St. Thomas Awesome!’ We know that some of these ideas would come with a massive price tag, but just consider those the long-term possibilities. Some of the other concepts are very affordable and easy to achieve in the short-term. We hope that everyone loves one or two of the ideas on our list, and we know, of course, that each reader will hate a few of the ideas, too … but hey, we want to get the conversation rolling! Let us know what you think …
1. The new Mayor and Council should take a shot at trying to get the community engaged more consistently in generating new ideas for the city. Over the past few years, the goal at City Hall seems to have been to make the regular City Council meetings as perfunctory as possible with limited debate … no alarms, no surprises, and the public goes to sleep. The opportunity for in-depth discussion has been outsourced to ‘Reference Committee Meetings’, which happen in advance of the regular Council meetings. With interest, we note that the new Council is considering shifting the regular City Council meetings from a 6pm start-time to 7pm, and putting the Reference Committee meetings at 6pm, rather than 4:30pm. One reason for the possible change in schedule is the thought that perhaps members of the public will be more able to attend at those times. Our view is that the timing of the meetings does not matter too much, and this will not inspire the public to participate consistently in any regular meetings at City Hall. So, we would like to propose something entirely different! Let’s innovate and shake things up! We think that people really just want the opportunity to understand and contribute more to the thought process behind the decisions made by Council, and likely most Members of Council would welcome this type of engagement. So, we would like to make an offer: our team of young journalists would be happy to host, twice a year, a ‘City Council Social’ … some drinks and appetizers in an intimate venue, centred around the opportunity for the public to participate in interactive, authentic question-and-answer sessions with our Members of Council. Sound good? We could host the first one this spring – how about April?
2. Downtown St. Thomas … jeepers. Here is our first thought: would the new Mayor and Council begin by setting a long-term vision for a central park and event space downtown? We know that there is really only one option: the land south of the CASO Station, part of which is owned by the Elgin County Railway Museum and the other part by the City. A concept plan has been developed for the site, which could be refined but certainly provides a starting point. How about a full costing of the environmental cleanup required on the site, and then look at the park development in three phases? Phase one: ‘Railway City Food Plaza’, where old rail cars could be reinvented as food trucks and pop-up shops; phase two: ‘Railway City for Kids’, where there is an outdoor movie theatre, splash-pad, and adventure playground equipment; and phase three, ‘Railway City Fairgrounds’, an open event space where the community can host festivals and concerts. We know that this is an expensive proposition, but we can set a course and get there gradually. Could some of the land be sold to a developer to build an apartment complex overlooking the park, and then use the proceeds from the sale to kick-start the park?
3. We are very fortunate to have Pinafore Park in our community. The trees, paths, and tasteful amenities around the property are truly lovely. Still, there are a few ways that we could make the park a bit more interactive and user-friendly. First, could there be kayaks and paddle boards made available for use on Pinafore Lake? Would that not add a bit of magic and visual interest to the park? Second, how about building a patio beyond the outfield fence in Emslie Field, say from left field to centre field, and make that into a craft beer and cider space in the summer … it would help bring in crowds for the Tomcats games! Third, how about re-imagining and enhancing the seating area and lawn in front of the Morris F. Jones band-shell, and bring in some food trucks to support the ‘Music in the Park’ series and the ‘Movies in the Park’ nights? And in the winter, could we install a skating rink in front of the band-shell, like the one in Victoria Park in London?
4. Back to the downtown … one easy and affordable way to bring some life to Talbot Street is to add bump-out patios in front of restaurants, bars and cafés. Other communities are doing this, so why not in St. Thomas? Here is how the process works: temporary patios are installed in parking spaces in front of certain downtown establishments, and suddenly there is space on the street to put out tables, chairs, and colourful umbrellas. Add some music and watch the downtown come to life! (We might even have a way to provide a couple of these patios, if anyone is interested … here is an interesting article on how this has worked in Hamilton.) In St. Thomas, the City could also take the reconstruction of Talbot Street a bit further, and mimic what the City of London is doing downtown with the new Dundas Place ‘Flex Street’ … basically, this is an area that permits regular vehicle traffic, but can be converted easily into festival and event space! Why not consider this in St. Thomas on Talbot from Mondamin / White to St. Catharine / Princess?
5. Transit! This was a major election issue. There was near-universal consensus among the candidates for Mayor and Council that the bus system was not working effectively for anyone, and the whole thing needs to be scrapped and reinvented. We would like to make two simple recommendations: first, paint the buses bright colours and give each bus a cool name that connects to the community, and play some music on-board; second, run three buses north-south and three buses west-east and keep a schedule like at Disneyland, just simple back-and-forth patterns that intersect so people can jump on and off. We want to ride the pink and grey Jumbo bus and transfer and hop on the black and red Fanshawe College bus! Or maybe we jump on the green and yellow Pinafore Park bus before switching onto the blue and while Waterworks Park bus! We are going to introduce a series of videos soon on our Instagram page where we ride the buses around the City and go a little more in-depth on this issue. Perhaps the time has come as well to launch a ride-share program in the city … the cost of a cab ride is pretty steep, and probably a bit of competition could make the prices much more palatable for users.
6. We would like our neighbourhoods to be more interesting. Look at the residential density in St. Thomas … we really pack the houses together! As the community expands, what if we added some commercial spaces around some of the parklands that developers are required to add into new subdivisions? It would be cool to have a small grocery store, café, and a restaurant with a patio within walking distance. Why not? This is beneficial for the environment and the local economy and culture. And in older parts of the city, would it be possible to look at establishing a few areas where houses could be converted more easily into cafés and bars? Look at Wortley Village in London, for example … could we reinvent the Ross Street business district along these lines? Again, we would like to do our part to make our neighbourhoods more interesting, so we have just launched a fun little project to name every neighbourhood in the city, and have free library boxes designed and installed in each one! We are partnering with Hayhoe Homes, Fanshawe College, and a few local donors to help make this happen. If you want to get involved, just let us know, we are always happy to chat … for now, though, check out this video on our Instagram page … and this one, too … that give a little insight into how all this came together. We are really looking forward to making this project come to life!
7. Look, we all know that parts of our downtown are struggling and occasionally frightening. While a few people seemed to celebrate when some random travel writer on Expedia announced that St. Thomas has the ‘coolest downtown in Canada’ (and ranked Toronto number two!), we have to be serious about the challenge that we are facing. And we are not trying to be negative at all – just consider the words of our Chief of Police, Chris Herridge, who tweeted the following on November 22nd, 2018, evaluating the year-to-date in the city: “This morning we hit 17,000 incidents, the highest I can remember since starting in 1989. We are on place to potentially reach 19,000 – averaging over 52 incidents daily. In 2011 we reached 16,031 – our highest before this year. The dedicated of staff at STPS has not wavered!” We appreciate the efforts of the police service, but this is social disorder spiralling out of control, a combination of drug use, homelessness, mental health issues, family breakdowns and alienation. Chief Herridge is even having difficulty securing funding to continue a program that supports having a mental health professional on staff to assist police when responding to mental health-related calls. We are really encouraged to see the City developing the new ‘Family Campus’ at 230 Talbot Street, which will include social services like Ontario Works, Housing Services and Children’s Services, as well as affordable accommodation units and a new child care facility. This is a terrific addition to the downtown, and hopefully will help people access necessary services more easily. Beyond this, and just thinking conceptually, what if the City looked at working with the province on a pilot project in the downtown core – call it the ‘St. Thomas Flex Hospital’ -- that aims to provide on-demand mental health counselling and services in a relaxed yet secure environment, as well as temporary residence space. This might give people battling addictions and mental health issues a first stop when they are in need or have questions, and a place where the police can bring people for assessment before heading to the emergency room at the hospital. If this sounds expensive, consider the current costs shouldered by the justice system, the challenges for the police, and maybe something like this could be helpful. We are not experts, but we care about our downtown and the people who live and work there, and would like to help make things better.
8. Okay, full disclosure … we work with Fanshawe College on a few fronts, and the institution is one of our presenting partners on a couple of our Instagram shows. Having said that, we think that there is an interesting opportunity for St. Thomas to consider! In our community (and around southwestern Ontario), we are facing a critical shortage of skilled tradespeople, and our capacity for economic development in the future hinges in large measure on our ability to address this issue. The St. Thomas/Elgin Regional Campus of Fanshawe offers a number of programs focussed on manufacturing and skilled trades, but it is a challenge to get sufficient numbers of domestic students to enroll. One opportunity is to enhance the facilities at the campus and attract more international students, but without a student residence or much to offer in terms of student life in St. Thomas, the campus may be resigned to treading water. There is definitely an opportunity for Mayor Preston and the City Council in St. Thomas to consider working with Fanshawe on ways to improve facilities at the campus, attract more students to the community, and perhaps collaborate with the City of London on a dedicated bus route between the campuses in London and St. Thomas. This would give students a way to live in London and come to school in St. Thomas, as well as a new transit link between the two communities. Bigger picture, long-term thinking … what if the City Council and local Economic Development team could attract a developer to build a facility that would serve as a student residence from September to April, and as a hotel in the summer months? If you think this is a radical idea, think again … most new student residences are quite attractive, and could certainly double as a hotel in a community like ours. Just a thought …
9. Here is a cool concept drawn from the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California … what if we could add a few funded pop-up shops around St. Thomas and area? The concept is simple: there is a funded space, and entrepreneurs book the pop-up shop for a few days at a time and people can come in to test the new product or service and provide feedback! Establish a brand for the pop-up shop and a look distinctive to the community, and get rolling! Here is the key: support local young entrepreneurs, and also reach outside of the community to bring others into the space! Invite start-up businesses from Windsor, London, Stratford, Waterloo, Hamilton and everywhere in-between to set up for a week or a weekend and test the local market. This provides endless social media content, and provides a great way to connect with people from outside the community. If one or two of these entrepreneurs decides to locate in the community, that’s a big win! St. Thomas can be a bit inward-looking at times, and this would give the City a way to look out and draw in new people to help promote and brighten up the community. We are working quietly on this project right now, and would welcome input from others. Get in touch!
10. One final thought on the downtown … one way to know that you have an unwelcoming downtown is to consider the near-total absence of children! We would love to see lots of kids enjoying downtown St. Thomas. Right now, many young families utilize the Library and the Art Centre regularly, and come out to the Horton Market on Saturday mornings in the summer. Some teenagers and young adults seem to be enjoying the new skate-park, and obviously there is a lot of activity all the time at the Joe Thornton Community Centre. There are one-off events like the Santa Claus Parade that draw crowds, too. Overall, though, goodness … most parents steer clear, and lots of kids seem to grow up in the city without walking downtown even once. So, how do we add more opportunities for kids in the core? Consider this idea: a downtown multi-site sports park for kids! We recognize that there are few opportunities for large-scale parks or public plazas given the current configuration of our downtown, but why not enhance the smaller spaces that we do have? We could create ‘passports’ for kids and encourage them to visit every site, criss-crossing downtown in the process. Take a look at the photo below … this is at AT&T Park in San Francisco, where the Giants play … this is a small baseball field for little kids beyond the left field fence! What if we developed five of these micro-spaces around downtown St. Thomas, one each for baseball, hockey, soccer, basketball, and football? The square footage required is really not that expansive, and this would bring families downtown. Kids love it! Parents and friends can cheer on their little ones! Lots of fun …
So, there you go, that’s our list of the ‘Top Ten Ways That the New Mayor and Council Can Help Make St. Thomas Awesome!’ We will wrap this article up just by saying that St. Thomas has really grown in the past ten years, especially through the efforts of our homebuilders, entrepreneurs, volunteers and public officials. Now, we would love to see a concerted effort to turn-over the culture to make St. Thomas a vibrant, active, and attractive place to live and visit … but we will never get there unless everyone does ‘more together’ and feels supported in the process. Oh, and the downtown needs to keep evolving … thank you to everyone who is trying to make this happen. We believe in the potential of the community and look forward to doing more together!
Article By: Andrew Gunn with contributions from Maddie King, Alex Popen, and Jenn Klassen