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Out of the downtown that is.

I have heard the same rumour from a couple of people that the LCBO is looking to move into the recently empty Rexall Pharmacy building at the south end of Parry Sound beside Sobeys. That’s all it is, a rumour.

But, it’s not a new suggestion, and it makes complete sense for the LCBO. A nice new building that is probably the right size, and a lease on their current location that expires later this year. Lots of parking, close to shopping, and I would imagine, within a year, a bank in the area. One stop shopping for groceries, cash, liquor, beer, fast food, and a pharmacy and the Canadian Tire for everything else. There is even a drive through window. Why bother going downtown?

As a taxpayer, it doesn’t bother me at all, well at least not for the near-term. The property taxes the LCBO pays as part of its rent for a downtown location are probably the same as it would be for a south end location. It would mean less congestion in the downtown, but then again there never is that much congestion anyway.

In the longer term I do have concerns. You may not have noticed, but the 2016 MPAC property assessment reduced the valuation of business properties in the downtown. The lost business taxation revenue was picked up by residential properties. If an LCBO move were to induce more businesses to relocate to the south end because of the loss of shopping traffic, or businesses in the downtown decided things were too tough and simply closed down, it might create a situation where the downtown was labeled ‘depressed’, and assessments would be further reduced, possibly considerably reduced. That would shift even more of the tax burden to residential property owners, or result in a cut in municipal services.

Of course, lower assessments on business properties, and lower taxes, might allow landlords in the downtown to lower their rental rates. That in turn could spur a renaissance of sorts where businesses attracted by lower rental costs would move to the downtown, which would in turn attract more traffic; a virtuous cycle would be created that would in time lead to increased assessments and more tax revenue. But that is unlikely to happen. One consistent story I have heard is that the downtown landlords overprice commercial property rents, which in turn makes operating a business in the downtown expensive, which dissuades businesses moving downtown. I can’t verify this story, but if the LCBO were to leave there will be more vacant storefronts, leading to a vicious cycle where landlords need to squeeze more out of the businesses that stay in the downtown that compels them to leave.

As an aside, it is my firm opinion that the RBC will be moving the to the south end in 2018 or no later than the first half of 2019. They have already made the move to a mobile facility beside Dunn’s Storage indicating their intention to be gone from the Parry Sound Mall. I initially filed an appeal to the by-law that approved the RBC move in hopes that it would give the Downtown Business Association a chance to marshal their resources and mount an opposition to the move. But after speaking to the DBA and a few merchants it became apparent that they either felt there was no threat, or they preferred to ignore it because it was too much effort. In the end I dropped the appeal after spending a thousand dollars and the prospect of spending an additional twenty or thirty thousand to have any hope of success. One can’t help those who won’t help themselves.

Perhaps the downtown businesses understand the situation better than I do, and the RBC move was not a figurative dying canary signaling the eventual relocation of banks, booze retailers and bars away from the downtown. That belief has some support. The Mayor explicitly stated that he would not approve any move of these businesses from the downtown, and he was the deciding vote on approving the RBC move. Making it even more interesting is the fact that this is an election year. If the LCBO doesn’t feel they have the support from the current Council to approve the move, they may just wait until there is a new council. I expect that there will be a least two seats open, so there could be a change in the appetite of Council to weaken the downtown. Town Staff and Council have to seriously consider the possibility that denying the LCBO a move to the south end might push them to move out of Parry Sound, across the Town Line just a little down Oastler Park Drive. Oh, and paying about one-third in property taxes in Seguin would be a bonus. The LCBO leaving Parry Sound would mean two, not one, empty buildings and another loss of tax revenue. Hmmm! The LCBO is a retail site, nothing more. Does the LCBO outlet in Dunchurch have town water and sewer services?

There still is an active appeal against the RBC move which explains why the RBC is in a temporary location. It concerns the Province’s approval of the Town’s Official Plan amendment to permit the RBC move. A hearing will be held next month before the Ontario Municipal Board. I have nothing to do with this appeal, it is not being made by the Downtown Business Association or one of the downtown businesses, but rather the Parry Sound Mall. I wish them luck, but I fear their appeal will fail. The Province has already indicated that they wish to delegate the responsibility for this type of Official Plan amendment to the local communities.

With all of this new, fluid, and unconfirmed information the community will need to decide what outcome it prefers.

  1. Allow an LCBO move if that is what they want and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps it’s the start of a precipitous decline in the Parry Sound Downtown and the banks and Beer Store follow the move. Perhaps it will be the spark that gets the landlords, businesses and the Town to work together and build a real downtown plan that can succeed. We have a new Economic Development Officer being hired; this should be their number one job. Better to find solutions for a collapsing downtown than dream about an innovation park.
  2. Deny the move and hope the LCBO decides to renew their lease at their current location. That implies no change in the status quo for probably five years and things continue on their current path, for better or worse.
  3. Deny the move and discover that the LCBO has decided to build a new facility just across the town line. The Town loses the tax revenue (I’m sure the current property owner would get tax relief of some sort sooner or later) and the property sits empty with the implications of Outcome 1 above.

You have to care, but you can’t care too much. The people who are most likely to bear the near-term brunt of any movement of businesses to the south end are those businesses and landlords who can’t just get up and move. If they don’t care should we? What about removing restrictions concerning what businesses are restricted to the downtown and letting the market decide?