Top Ten Ways to Re-imagine Downtown Simcoe

Top Ten Ways to Re-imagine Downtown Simcoe

Norfolk County feels a bit unsettled ever since the transformational municipal election back in the fall --- and we think that this is a great thing! New leaders are in place, conversations are happening, and there is a healthy sense of optimism (and skepticism) in the air.

 Our team at young & free press loves to visit the community – there is no place quite like Norfolk! The agricultural environment is one-of-a-kind, the cultural dynamics are unique, and the growing tourism sector is providing more and more reasons for residents, ex-pats and enthusiasts to encourage newcomers to visit. Still, there are some significant challenges, including the high average age of farmers, the problem of attracting and retaining talented young people, and the logistics of trying to serve small communities dispersed over a large geographic area. For our part, we want to focus on one challenge specifically: the real or perceived struggles of downtown Simcoe and other urban areas in the County. We want to explore this issue especially because there is massive potential to build and innovate at the intersection of urban and rural life.  

Feel free to agree or disagree with our ideas – we are not suggesting treatments to cure the root causes of social disorder, or reverse decades of gradual decline. Instead, we are pushing at thought-horizons, imagining new economic and cultural possibilities, and thinking of current residents at all stages of life as well as future generations. Above all, we think the key to transforming downtown areas in Norfolk County is to integrate more fully with the rural surroundings and develop more platforms for young entrepreneurs.

Here are our ‘Top Ten Ways to Re-imagine Downtown Simcoe’ …

1.     Recognize and love the fact that the work involved in re-imagining and transforming downtown Simcoe will take at least twenty-five years. Starting now. Look up the road in Brantford – former Mayor Chris Friel famously remarked, back in the nineties, that the City had the ‘worst downtown in Canada’ – and now think of the launch of Laurier Brantford in 1999, the restoration of heritage buildings and the introduction of student residences, the establishment of Harmony Square, the demolition of derelict buildings on Colborne Street in 2010, and the opening of the stunning Laurier Brantford YMCA last year. All that took time. There were controversial moments – and cathartic decisions, too. Likely no one will hold up Brantford now as having the best downtown in Canada, but certainly the community has taken aggressive steps toward reinvention and should be congratulated. Local culture matters. Simcoe may not have the worst downtown in Canada at this point, but there is definitely room for improvement. Right now, the urban landscape feels like a series of back alleys with vacant stores, highlighted by some lovely park spaces, resilient commercial activity, and a few architectural gems. (The fact that architect Carlos Ventin lived and worked in the area for years is significant). Most important, though, we have noticed in our conversations with local business owners and residents a sense of weariness mixed with flickers of hope. Methadone clinics. Absence of youth and families. Unwelcoming streets at night. The Norfolk County OPP just executed a significant search and made a number of drug-related arrests at a property downtown. All these things are frustrating, but this ecosystem of social disorder exists everywhere to some degree. We are interested in adding the good stuff, and gradually changing the way that people view – and discuss – a community. We are encouraged to see, though, that the Police in communities around Ontario are requesting assistance in contending with issues related to mental health, addiction, and homelessness. Hopefully there is funding and an appetite for social innovation. We owe the Police – and ourselves – the support to develop new ways to address and manage these issues. There is nothing wrong with running pilot programs, measuring the impact, and adjusting on-the-go. On all these fronts, this is a long-term project … twenty-five years, at least.

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Some good news on Norfolk Street South in downtown Simcoe: first, the charitable organization Indwell has purchased the Norfolk Inn site, and plans to redevelop the property into affordable accommodation units; second, Jenn and Alex stopped by recently to visit Jess Bommarito, who has just opened ‘Groundswell Coworking’, which provides spaces for innovators and entrepreneurs to work together.

Some good news on Norfolk Street South in downtown Simcoe: first, the charitable organization Indwell has purchased the Norfolk Inn site, and plans to redevelop the property into affordable accommodation units; second, Jenn and Alex stopped by recently to visit Jess Bommarito, who has just opened ‘Groundswell Coworking’, which provides spaces for innovators and entrepreneurs to work together.

2.     Find the idea that pulls the community together for the future. No rush, no ‘official’ brand – instead, just wait and listen, and when the right words emerge, the tuning fork will ring. What is the unifying idea for Simcoe right now? Maybe there is one, but if so, there is little evidence. Perhaps local members of County Council can listen to community members and start floating out some concepts. Political leadership is best when history is factored into decision-making at a clip of about ten percent, and the future inspires ninety percent of the vision. Take the influences of the past – from First Nations, the natural environment, early modern agriculture, tobacco, and industry – and encourage and inspire the future by connecting with First Nations, building a new spiritual architecture based on sustainability, supporting and highlighting technology and innovation in farming, embracing cannabis, and building up an international profile for the community through investments in agriculture, education, and digital media. If Norfolk County is Ontario’s Garden, what is Simcoe? Simcoe: Grow Town. Simcoe: The Garden Town. Simcoe: Welcome to the Garden Party! Hmmm … we’ll come back to the idea of a new brand for the community, because this can be really helpful and lucrative if done well. Start thinking – what moniker would the community embrace? If we have a sense of that desire, we may get close to some sort of unifying idea, and if this can help inspire the future of Simcoe, that would be significant. Again, though, no rush …

3.     Visit London during the upcoming JUNO Awards celebration and take a look at ‘Dundas Place’, the new flex-street downtown. We love the look and feel … there are no curbs! Vehicles use the street as usual, but the area has been designed to be closed off at times for major festivals and events. Yes, this costs more money, and yes there are people in Simcoe and Norfolk who will complain. Construction is a pain. The long-term benefits are significant, though, and we think that this could be a great fit for Kent Street or maybe Colborne Street in downtown Simcoe. Important to note, though, that building a sweet street does not change the culture – again, this takes decades. In London, this traces back to the construction of Covent Garden Market, Budweiser Gardens, and Fanshawe College sites in the downtown core. Dundas Street in London has been a bit rough around the edges for decades, but now that grit is being balanced by other investments and activities. Luckily, this has not looked like gentrification, but rather an attempt at harmony.

In the first photo, Jenn and Maddie stand on Dundas Place in London around the holidays, just after the flex-street opened up following construction. Notice the absence of curbs. In the second photo, Andrew and Emily stand on Kent Street in Simcoe. Perhaps this area in downtown Simcoe could be transformed into a flex-street, too.

In the first photo, Jenn and Maddie stand on Dundas Place in London around the holidays, just after the flex-street opened up following construction. Notice the absence of curbs. In the second photo, Andrew and Emily stand on Kent Street in Simcoe. Perhaps this area in downtown Simcoe could be transformed into a flex-street, too.

4.     Question: what is the competitive advantage for Simcoe? Put differently, why would any educated, talented, and motivated entrepreneur, professional, or skilled tradesperson choose to live in Simcoe rather than, say, London, Stratford, Guelph, Waterloo or Hamilton? Truly this is a competition, and communities need to work hard to attract talent. Right now, Simcoe is a family town, because family ties are arguably the main reason why people choose to live there. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and there are exceptions to the rule; however, that should be the baseline, not the goal. Every community needs to work toward developing a community that draws in newcomers. Fortunately for Simcoe, the perfect opportunity to make this happen is possible right now! Simcoe and Norfolk County as a whole need to renew local recreational, social, and cultural infrastructure, and build to serve people at different stages of life. There are ongoing discussions regarding the development of a ‘community hub’ with lots of local stakeholders contributing ideas – but have the people involved in this process really engaged outsiders? If so, what has been the feedback? Go beyond Simcoe, beyond Norfolk, and bring in outside voices. Bring in people with zero connection to Norfolk. This does not mean consultants from Hamilton or Toronto necessarily, but rather students graduating from colleges and universities, young families from other communities, and seniors, too. Real people. Empathize with the perspective of outsiders, and ask, what do you like about our community, and what could we add to have you consider moving here?

5.     Make downtown Simcoe feel rural. Commercial activity has been allowed to migrate to The Queensway, for better or worse. This opens up the opportunity for the downtown area to become something completely fresh … a place to grow in every sense of the term. Plant walls. Rooftop gardens. Urban agriculture. Bring farming and food innovation into the core, into vacant buildings, and elevate young entrepreneurs. Encourage students and recent grads into a food innovation hub in town, and connect them long-term to opportunities to buy land in the countryside. Some nice apartments downtown would help. Urban density schemes are not what most people moving to Simcoe would want, meaning that a series of condominium towers downtown would not fit. Small, human-scaled residential buildings make a lot of sense, like the new building proposed for the former Maliboo club site. Get people living in the area, but not in giant stacks. At the same time, open up some space – the downtown would clearly benefit from a few central plazas and parks, fresh nodes of economic, cultural, and recreational activity. Demolition leads to construction. Hopefully the County Council knows how to lead on this front and build an integrated vision. Develop relationships with current property owners, and move discussions forward. Remember – this will take years! Put someone in place for the long haul. Small victories lead to major ones. Start putting some parcels together and imagine a signature gathering space, a courtyard with a stage and screens bordered by raised garden beds maintained by the County and community members, all surrounded by new, low-rise residential units. If Talbot Gardens is eventually demolished, this would be a good fit for that space. Light the area up at night. Hire a producer to book events on an ongoing basis. Encourage people to walk after lunch and dinner. Bring the downtown to life …

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In the first photo, Jenn & Emily stand in downtown Simcoe near the corner of Talbot and Robinson back in the fall. Just recently, the former Maliboo Club was demolished by A1 Demolition out of Ancaster; apparently, the owners of the site, Vanderlaan C.S. from nearby Dundas, will build a two-storey structure on the site with apartment buildings and a commercial storefront. The photo on the right shows the demolition in progress.

In the first photo, Jenn & Emily stand in downtown Simcoe near the corner of Talbot and Robinson back in the fall. Just recently, the former Maliboo Club was demolished by A1 Demolition out of Ancaster; apparently, the owners of the site, Vanderlaan C.S. from nearby Dundas, will build a two-storey structure on the site with apartment buildings and a commercial storefront. The photo on the right shows the demolition in progress.

6.     Transcend hipster messaging. Visit any large city and you will find the hipsters, building businesses and social programs energized by a quest for authenticity. There is nothing wrong with this at all, but in our view, Norfolk County does not have to get into any authenticity competition. This place is already the real deal – just look around! Soil, food, drinks, entrepreneurship, grit, and a distinctive history – Norfolk County does not need to prove anything to anyone. Too much time and money gets wasted in the endless quest to perform authenticity, and in this process of performance, places and products are becoming more and more homogenous. Shift the selling of Norfolk from ‘Norfolk is great / Norfolk is a wonderful place to start a business / Norfolk is a great place to raise a family’ to just being Norfolk. For Simcoe specifically, this means that you chart a course, invite people into the fold wholeheartedly, and start making progress on the look and feel of the downtown. What are we designing the town for? To grow, naturally …

7.     Who are the dreamers in Simcoe? Check out the book Dream Cities by Wade Graham … the author examines seven urban ideas that shaped the look and feel of cities around the world: Bertram Goodhue and the Romantic City; Daniel Burnham and the Ordered City; Le Corbusier, Robert Moses and the Rational City; Frank Lloyd Wright and the Anticity; Jane Jacobs, Andres Duany and the Self-Organizing City; Victor Gruen, Jon Jerde and the Shopping City; and Kenzo Tange, Norman Foster, and the Techno-Ecological City. The book is fascinating, and the underlying idea is that dreams matter. Vision is crucial. Cities become expressions of ideas that people have for a place – so, who are the dreamers in Simcoe? Who cares enough to take this on, listen to everyone, draw ideas from around the world, synthesize all these inputs and, most importantly, activate that vision? We think that there are dreamers in town, and we want to support those dreamers rather than ridicule new ideas as too expensive, impractical, or unnecessary. Cities change when the built and natural environment helps to encourage new activity, and newcomers enter the spaces and collaborate with long-time residents to energize the culture. Why not aim high and ask, how can Simcoe not only be better, but also realize an entire new vision for what a small, rural town can be? Find the dreamers ...

 8.     Time to take a shot at a brand … we like the word grow. Simcoe could be ‘grow town’ – like a boom town, but for agriculture and food, and more resilient. Bring farming into the core. Acknowledge that this is the legacy talent base in the community, and there is a ton of potential in that, if the community finds ways to engage young people and newcomers. Like we hinted at before, imagine vertical and indoor growing operations, community gardens, plant walls, micro-orchards and rooftop gardens, walking tours based around urban agriculture, season extension, and more local food and restaurants … perhaps a food truck court could work, too. Many of these things are already happening, but the challenge is obvious – if we want more to happen, more people have to come! Now, full disclosure: we work in collaboration with Fanshawe College on a few fronts, and know that the Agri-Business program at the Simcoe/Norfolk Regional Campus has many international students, many of whom are interested in starting-up new businesses in the community. This is an exciting new piece of the puzzle, and we are heartened to find companies in the financial services space looking more closely at how to provide lending opportunities to newcomers in agriculture. Let Guelph be the major education and research centre for farming in Ontario, and define Simcoe as the epicentre of food innovation and new product development! Think about all the potential in the word grow … from food to construction to international profile. Maybe this is grow time …

9.     Yes, we are suggesting that Simcoe and Norfolk County should be elevated in every way possible as an international hub, building off the traditional export economy of tobacco and ginseng, and adding cannabis, beer, wine, cider, niche products, education, and arts and culture to the profile. Consider this quote that we came across recently in the book The Once and Future Great Lakes Country by John L. Riley: “Norfolk is one of the longest settled parts of the north shore of Lake Erie and it has a special appeal as Canada’s deep rural south.” So, what is Norfolk County – Canada’s ‘deep rural south’ or a burgeoning international centre? Well, perhaps the place is a bit of both, and hopefully moving toward a kind of rural cosmopolitanism. The backroads are peppered with some of the most fascinating agricultural operations in the province, boosted by thousands of temporary foreign workers each year, including labourers from Mexico, Trinidad and Jamaica. Products grown in Norfolk are shipped far and wide. Now, add some international students and homegrown entrepreneurs, and suddenly there is a case for elevating the profile of the community as one self-organizing around international talent. For Simcoe, urban success may be defined in the future by whether individuals are drawn to the culture and lifestyle of the community, and obviously there is a need to reflect all these different influences in the local scene. Norfolk County has an interesting history on this front: look at Delhi and the impact of Belgian, German, Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian culture, amongst others. How can this be reinvented for the smartphone generation? What are the stories that we could be telling in Simcoe right now and in the future? How can we draw more and more talented newcomers from overseas, and provide ladders to help individuals start-up new businesses and connect with existing growers? There is so much potential here that this really demands dedicated expertise.  

10.  Invest in culture – and we do not mean ‘museum culture’ only, but rather signature experiences that connect with similar ventures around the region, country, and beyond. We are excited to be involved this year in supporting the growth of the Routes to Roots Film Festival, and expanding the experience to link filmmaking to downtown Simcoe and the surrounding rural community. We think that an annual destination music festival makes a lot of sense for Norfolk County, and would love to see that concept take hold. Public art can be kind of banal, but we have seen examples of such art that evolve over time and avoid sterility in the process. Again, seek out the dreamers, invest and grow …

So, there you go, our Top Ten Ways to Re-Imagine Downtown Simcoe! Hopefully this helps further the conversation in the community. Oh, and just one more thing to add: in the past, we have shared lists like this that aim to inspire new ideas and collaborations, and for the most part people have embraced these articles as contributions to the wider community conversation; occasionally though, we are told that we would need a miracle or some sort of divine intervention to make these sorts of ideas come to life. Really, is this true? Seems to us that Tom Patterson had a dream to introduce a Shakespearean Festival to Stratford and got that done – read his book called First Stage and learn about hustle – and now, the community is building an extraordinary new theatre in his honour! Seems also like former Laurier University President Bob Rosehart and former Brantford Mayor Chris Friel shared a vision for introducing a university to downtown Brantford, and got that done – read the book A University Comes Downtown by the former Principal of Laurier Brantford, Leo Groarke, and find out how these ambitious ideas came to life. Big vision. Hard Work. Twenty-five years. Things get messy, tough decisions have to be made at key moments, and there will be hurt feelings sometimes – with leadership, though, this could be ‘grow time’ in Simcoe, and the town could be regenerated and bursting with gardens, outdoor and indoor micro-agriculture, culinary tourism, new park spaces and cultural assets, all driven by young entrepreneurs and a well-curated international vibe. Alternatively, do nothing and let the downtown decay further, and maybe you can eventually have the ‘Worst Downtown in Canada’ … from our perspective, though, Simcoe has lots of potential! Everything starts with vision …

Jenn, Emily and Alex recently in downtown Simcoe … we are fans of the idea of ‘psychogeography’, which refers to the art of exploring cities, towns and neighbourhoods by walking without a defined aim. Check out the book  Psychogeography  by Merlin Coverley for an interesting overview.

Jenn, Emily and Alex recently in downtown Simcoe … we are fans of the idea of ‘psychogeography’, which refers to the art of exploring cities, towns and neighbourhoods by walking without a defined aim. Check out the book Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley for an interesting overview.

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