The symptoms of Yellowknife's social issues are a major hindrance to the development of more retail downtown, a report presented to the councillors this week found.
Commissioned by the City of Yellowknife, the Tate Economic Research report said a failure to address the Yellowknife's inebriated and its homeless would be a "serious impediment" to City Hall's aim of growing the downtown retail market.
The report acknowledged the issues are hard to solve and many agencies are needed in any solution, including housing, health, and the police.
"The key is ensuring that the homeless and those suffering with substance abuse be treated with compassion while also aggressively keeping the downtown area's physical environment clean and safe," the report stated.
The consultants suggested providing public washrooms, pressure washing sidewalks every morning, and improving lighting in alleyways and other outside spaces. An increased police presence was also recommended.
Sameer Patel – presenting on behalf of Tate Economic Research – said Yellowknife's stagnant population and a lack of street-facing retail space are also impeding downtown retail growth.
“Yellowknife is a 'government downtown,' it wasn’t built like a retail downtown. So there are structural issues that aren’t easy to overcome,” Patel said.
The report recommends concentrating Yellowknife's retail revitalization efforts within a two-block radious of 50 Street and Franklin Avenue.
Councillor Julian Morse said it was high time to define what downtown is, as a failure to do so has caused haphazard development.
A map in Tate's report shows the amount of retail (red and pink), services (blue), and vacant space (green) in Yellowknife's downtown core.
'Do something on 50/50 lot'
At the heart of the Franklin Avenue and 50 Street intersection is the City-owned 50/50 lot. Undeveloped for 20 years, the lot is now for sale at $1.4 million and so far has had no takers, according to city administration.
Developing the lot doesn't need to be a grand project, Patel said. In fact, he felt, having a grand plan may be holding back development. Instead, the report suggests the city develop the lot using shipping containers such as Toronto's Stackt Market, which Patel told council was wildly popular with retailers.
Councillor Niels Konge suggested the Yellowknife Farmer's Market be relocated to the lot, as the weekly event now draws visitors away from the downtown core rather than into it. Mayor Rebecca Alty disagreed on several points Konge suggested, adding she looked forward to having that discussion.
Relocating the city's visitor information centre, now housed in the lower level of City Hall, would generate foot traffic downtown, the report found.
The consultants analyzed cellphone location data for the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre for four years up until it closed in 2017. They found the majority of people who stopped at the visitors' centre went from their hotels and back again without passing through downtown.
'White elephant' mall
The report addresses vacant retail space downtown, a well-known and much-discussed issue.
Ten percent of Yellowknife's retail space is vacant, Patel said, adding this was beyond a "good" vacancy rate of five to seven percent. What is interesting, he said, is where the vacancies are found: of the vacant space, 40 percent exists in the Centre Square Mall, which on its own has a 90-percent vacancy rate.
“Malls just don’t work any more, especially downtown malls,” Patel told councillors. His solution? The City could shame the mall owners into doing something, he said.
"We've tried that," Morse answered, calling the space a "white elephant mall."
“Our recommendation is that any energy that’s spent is spent to try to find alternative uses of the mall," Patel said, adding a lot of the consultants' discussion with residents and businesses was around what to do with the mall. Offering the owners something creative in order to extract themselves from the mall was a solution Patel floated.
“The path of least resistance would be to deal with the ownership and do a land swap," he said, for example giving the owners the 50/50 lot in exchange for the mall. "I fully realize that there’s all sorts of issues on the land swap but it’s also clear to me that the ownership of the mall is keeping the mall as it is. There’s no incentive to do anything."
In other markets, malls have been turned into office space or car dealerships, Patel added.
While Morse called the idea of a swap "compelling," Councillor Shauna Morgan said swapping the mall space for the 50/50 lot raised "huge red flags."
Get on with it, councillors say
The report also suggested making the downtown area more visitor-friendly with signage, encouragement for local retailers to stock items appealing to tourists, and hotels offering shuttles downtown during dinner hours.
Other strategies in the report included creating a downtown area management organization; making investing in retail downtown more attractive than along Old Airport Road; and supporting business development.
Despite the many challenges, the consultants found there was a captive market of people who work in the downtown's many offices and those who live there, as well as tourists. "There is also a strong entrepreneurial spirit in Yellowknife, as evidenced by the retail hustle of many of the existing retailers," the report stated.
While councillors welcomed the strategy, several agreed that the time for planning and reports has come to its end. The conversation around revitalization has been ongoing for "a really long time" and action is needed, Morse said.
“This is not the first time we’ve heard virtually every single one of these recommendations, in some form or another,” he said. “In a lot of cases we’re not acting on the recommendations. And that’s kind-of been our big failure.”
Councillor Stacie Smith agreed the City needs to make a plan and begin implementing the plan.
The $75,000 study is one of several which the City will use to draw up a final set of recommendations for council, economic development director Kerry Penney said.