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Lower Lonsdale could learn lessons from Rapid City, South Dakota: Roger Brooks
Next week, tourism industry marketing guru Roger Brooks will be back in North Van to unveil his vision for a reenergized Lower Lonsdale waterfront.
The president of Seattle-based Destination Development International has been tasked by the City of North Van to take a hard look at how they can best take advantage of the waterfront lands adjacent to Lonsdale Quay.
Once home to a bustling shipyard operation, in the early 2000s dilapidated buildings on the site were razed to make way for the waterfront’s next chapter. When a proposal for a maritime museum fell through, the city was left with a cluster of brand-new buildings and, essentially, a blank canvas in Shipbuilders’ Square.
Now as North Van city council and residents await with bated breath for Brooks’ presentation this Tuesday at city hall, The Outlook takes a look at a city comparable in size that the sought-after consultant has transformed.
A decade ago, downtown Rapid City, South Dakota was a ghost town. Positioned in the shadow of famed American tourist attraction Mount Rushmore, Rapid City was a place that people either bypassed or just spent the night.
“It was blighted area,” Destination Rapid City president Dan Senftner told The Outlook on Monday.
That is until Roger rolled into town to deliver a pep talk. Chief among his recommendations for Rapid City is the same advice he’s imparted on North Van: Incorporate a public gathering area that is unique and will attract tourists and locals alike.
After Brooks laid down the framework, it was up to Rapid City residents and business owners to create a centrally-located space to call their own. But first they would need a vibrant business district to be built up around it.
So Senftner formed the downtown revitalization organization Destination Rapid City. Made up of third-generation Rapid City residents, the group’s first goal was to secure a Business Improvement District (BID) for the area.
At first, there was opposition from some Rapid City business owners, who voiced concerns similar to the sentiments of some of their Canadian counterparts in Lower Lonsdale where a Business Improvement Area (BIA) is currently being proposed.
Senftner said the people that spoke the loudest against the BID — a model where business owners collectively funds area enhancements by paying a special tax — thought they would not reap any of the benefits.
After a previous failed attempt to gain majority support for the BID, Senftner turned to community members who carried clout and those who could provide the financial backing for a new campaign and other initiatives of Destination Rapid City.
“Before we knew we had a million dollars to work with,” recalls Senftner.
In the end, the BID motion passed, with 57 per cent of businesses owners in favour.
“We did this in a true economic downturn,” said Senftner. “It was the best thing this community ever did.”
Based on tax assessment, Rapid City’s BID structure is two-tiered: Property owners in the downtown core pay $1.50 per $1,000 of property value, and then those on the outskirts pay 75 cents per $1,000. On average, most owners are paying $411 a year.
“So it wasn’t like it was out of line,” said Senftner.
One year after the BID was formed, the property owners collected on their investment. Their contributions fund the operation of Rapid City’s celebrated Main Street Square, which opened in 2011. Among the iconic landmark’s features is a plaza that boasts a waterfall, an interactive water fountain and public art sculptures.
The vibrant public space is active all year round, hosting 200 special events, arts and culture, live concerts and seasonal ice skating — and is complemented by a broad range of locally-owned dining and boutique shopping options.
“A mix of businesses is important in a downtown, not just taking the first thing that comes along,” said Senftner.
A property owner himself, Senftner has taken his own measures to attract niche businesses to the area by offering rent incentives. For example, he might shave 30 per cent off in the first year and then slowly increase the rent over five years, at which point the business has gained a foothold.
Senftner said it’s up to the property owners to drive the local economy through these kinds of business incentives.
“It’s to their benefit in the long run,” said Senftner. “Very rarely is the city going to do it.”
Mount Rushmore gets two million visitors a year. It’s Rapid City’s goal to attract at least half of those people.
“And we are getting pretty damn close,” said Senftner.
When he looks around the city he’s called home for 36 years, Senftner hardly recognizes it.
“The streets are cleaner, everyone’s attitude is different,” said Senftner. “Now, when I go down the street, I don’t know how we would be without [Main Street Square].”
In an email to The Outlook on Tuesday, Brooks said North Van City can learn some lessons from Rapid City.
“You have one chance to do it right. Don’t cheap out and then spend more later to make it right,” said Brooks.
Rapid City has an 8,200-square-foot ice rink, which Brooks said has proved so popular that they have to ration the ice skates. He’s suggesting North Van start with a 15,000-square-foot rink.
Brooks offered a taste of some recommendations he’s bringing to city council.
“In North Vancouver’s “Shipyards Plaza” — no chain restaurants and retailers. We want to focus on local small businesses and rents will make that allowable,” wrote Brooks.
He also echoed Senftner’s sentiments when it comes to bringing in that eclectic mix of businesses. Brooks said property owners are “absolutely critical to the revitalization process” in numerous ways.
“They control the rents. They control the business hours, which need to be included in lease agreements: Downtowns are about places to go after work, after school, on weekends,” said Brooks. “The waterfront and Lower Lonsdale should have their prime hours extended to 9:00 at night. Period.”
And that business mix, adds Brooks, needs to orchestrated so you have “like businesses” grouped together: Dining districts, food courts, etc.
Similar to Rapid City’s initial challenge, Brooks believes most visitors are driving through North Van to reach well-publicized tourist attractions including Grouse Mountain and Whistler.
“In our research, most visitors have no clue about the [Lonsdale] waterfront - or even the SeaBus - something that will change when the “new” waterfront is developed over the next two years,” said Brooks.
“Most visitors know about Vancouver, Canada Place, Granville Island, but North Vancouver? It’s a blank slate. But that’s about to change, big time.”
Brooks will present his central waterfront area vision on Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. in city hall chambers.