Resident Adrienne Cartwright urged the City of Yellowknife itself to rescue the city's "dying" downtown by imploring councillors to have the municipality fill the "perfect space" – Centre Square Mall.
The mall, already considered a poor retail space, has a significant amount of vacant space. Report upon report has called for the City to find alternative ways of either filling that space or working with the mall's southern-based owners.
Cartwright, presenting to councillors on Tuesday, said: "We need to use these spaces again and we need to make them valuable again. We need to fill them with people and activities that improve the quality of life rather than diminish it."
Businesses are doing their best to generate traffic, Cartwright said, but need the City's help bringing people back to the downtown core. Arts and culture organizations have also created spaces downtown, she said, but don't have the "capital or the capacity to do it full-time or to do it alone."
The solution? Cartwright proposes moving Yellowknife's public library, "bursting at the seams," to the lower level of the mall, while housing a visitors' centre and recreation space in the same building.
"You just checked out an art show? Go grab a coffee and talk about it," said Cartwright. "Dropped the kids off at a workshop? Get some shopping done while they're out of your hair."
Calling Cartwright's presentation a "great idea", Councillor Julian Morse said expanding and reimagining the library is a conversation that should be restarted.
"If you look at what modern libraries are becoming in other cities ... they're still a library, they're still a place that houses books, where people use the internet. But they also become community centres where people take their kids during the day," he said. "You can imagine the library being an arts centre as well."
Morse imagined combining the library with groups such as the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre and Makerspace YK. "In the spirit of downtown revitalization, having a revitalization of the library be part of that could be quite powerful," he said.
Councillor Robin Williams said he wants to see indoor markets in the mall, building on the success of the outdoor Yellowknife Farmers' Market. Williams is among residents hoping to see a future polytechnic university housed in part at the mall, too.
Councillor Cynthia Mufandaedza voiced her support for moving the visitors' centre to the mall, as well as expanding children's programming at the library.
Adrienne Cartwright asked the City to "lead the way" in revitalizing downtown by leasing space in the Centre Square Mall. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
"I can see taekwondo groups having their classes in the area, especially where it's all glass, where people can see what they're doing," said Councillor Stacie Smith, adding she understood the vision Cartwright was proposing.
"I can see kids playing and my son loves doing Lego, and other kids being able to walk by ... we get more participants in these activities."
Having the City lease spaces in the mall, as Cartwright proposed, should be approached carefully, said Councillor Niels Konge. "I don't think, as a taxpaying citizen of Yellowknife, that I want to go and rent a whole mall to prop up one business," he said. Williams echoed the concern that tax dollars shouldn't go to renting mall space.
Instead, Konge suggested having the City be more of a broker, or making more use of one of several vacant City-owned lots downtown.
"There will be a forever-changing owner of that mall and that owner is not going to be living in Yellowknife, or be as concerned about downtown as we are," he said. "If there are solid investments that we can make in our own downtown, possibly giving up some of what we already own, it may be something to consider."
One option raised in the past is a "land swap," handing the neighbouring and vacant City-owned 50/50 lot to the mall's owners while the municipality assumes control of the mall.
Councillor Shauna Morgan reiterated concerns about that proposal. "I think that would be a dangerous game to play, to give the current owner of the mall control over the 50/50 lot, when it currently has so much potential," she said.
Meanwhile, City of Yellowknife staff are to produce an arts and culture master plan slated for development in 2021.
"We know that's a long ways away and so we want to do some things sooner than that," said city administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett on Tuesday. Working with the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre (YK ARCC), the City is considering ways to use the former BMO bank location inside Centre Square Mall, and is seeking artists to teach city-run classes.
"To be quite blunt, it's been a challenge getting them to engage," Bassi-Kellett said of efforts to sit down with the owners of the mall. The City hopes to continue to "press them on making sure there are options going forward on arts in the downtown area." While some parties are interested in utilizing the mall, said Bassi-Kellett, those discussions are not at the point where those parties want to speak publicly.
Councillor Steve Payne said now is a good time to negotiate lease rates with the owners of the mall, given the space is 90-percent empty. While competing needs exist – Payne mentioned redevelopment of the pool, work on the fire hall, and the need for a new arena in 10 to 15 years – arts and culture need support, he said. "Now if we could just move together on shaming the mall, to get us some cheaper rent."
City Hall staff are now pulling together the various reports and strategies devised for downtown revitalization, and will return to council with a set of suggested priorities.