Revitalizing downtown

by Scott Costen

More than 15 months after hosting a poorly attended meeting with business owners, the Region of Queens Municipality (RQM) is hitting the reset button on revitalization efforts for downtown Liverpool.

RQM invited about 40 business owners and operators to the closed-door meeting at the Town Hall Arts and Cultural Centre in February 2017. Only "six to eight" attended, according to Mayor David Dagley.

"Whether all weren't contacted, or whether it was a bad night, or whether they had more important things they had to attend to, I don't know the issue," he said. "We spent the majority of the meeting speaking with those in attendance about how we can get more visitation (downtown)."

Little, if any, follow-up was conducted to determine why so few people showed up. "Not by me as mayor, no," Dagley said. "Let's just say that staff didn't give me the information I was hoping to receive. And whether they had that information, I can't speak to whether they did or not."

LighthouseNow spoke with two business owners who attended the meeting. Both suggested the gathering was unproductive, but declined to be interviewed for this story.

Rick Henneberry, who operates a downtown barber shop, was not in attendance. "I didn't even know about it," he said. Documents obtained through a freedom of information request confirm Henneberry was not on the email distribution list used to send out invitations.

Those same documents also show the wrong day of the week was printed on the invitation, causing confusion among invitees. In response to queries about the date, two email corrections were sent out by an RQM staff member. It is unclear if a revised invitation was issued.

With a new CAO on board and recruitment efforts underway to find a new director of economic development, Dagley said RQM is now prepared to renew its efforts regarding downtown Liverpool, as well as Caledonia's commercial district.

"We want to have a meeting and we want to have communication, not only with the stores, but with the South Queens Chamber of Commerce and the North Queens Board of Trade," Dagley said.

A municipal branding strategy and a downtown beautification program - both recently approved in RQM's annual budget - will support these aims, Dagley said. "We value the downtown. It is important to the Liverpool area and to the businesses there," he said. "To the extent that we can increase that business, we'll try."

In an email to LighthouseNow, the South Queens Chamber of Commerce said it is supporting downtown shops with a hanging flower-basket program, a new business awards program and the annual "Christmas on the Mersey" event.

Some new businesses have opened since the February 2017 meeting, but these gains have been offset by a similar number of closures and relocations. Vacancies remain an issue, with several storefronts having been unoccupied for years.

Some recent good news came with the announcement that Lilieth Boutique on Main Street had expanded its retail footprint. Shop owner Sandra Marquis said she is confident downtown Liverpool can become more vibrant and successful.

"It can happen," she said. "It just won't happen overnight."

While meetings and consultations have their place, Marquis said what's really needed in the commercial core is action, both by government and business owners. "Somebody has to make a decision on these things," she said. "Make a decision and let's just do it."

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