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Making waves in city's downtown core.

Although a proposed series of developments for North Bay's waterfront is still years away from completion, it's already having a visible impact on the downtown core, according to the manager of a downtown improvement association.

"People know that this is in the pipe and they're already trying to get in on the ground floor," says Jeff Serran, manager of Downtown North Bay.

"They're starting to buy up buildings and open new offices and businesses, which is smart because property values are only going to increase from here."

Even existing businesses beginning to implement a series of facade improvements. He says this is an attempt to be prepared for the boom expected to hit the downtown when the city and a citizens group called the Community Waterfront Friends (CWF) complete their vision of the waterfront's development.

Though several phases have already been completed at the 50-acre waterfront, including the establishment of carousels and mini-trains, the project encompasses a much grander vision, according to Rod Johnston, CWF's chairman.

The next phase in this vision involves the development of an underpass below the CP tracks, connecting parts of the downtown cut off by the railyard with the waterfront.

The $6.5 million project has already seen some funding from the city, which provided $1.5 million, and the provincial government, which is providing $3.5 million. The remainder is being sought from a variety of sources, including FedNor, in anticipation of being able to begin building the tunnel by next summer. In the meantime, a series of underground conduits will be built by the CP tracks this fall in order to house hydro lines and sewer systems when the park is later established.

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When complete, the 24-foot-wide, 100-foot-long underpass will link the heart of the downtown core to the waterfront proper, allowing for another mini-train to carry passengers from one end to the other. It's also slated to accommodate foot traffic and snowmobiles in the winter.

Next year is also slated to see the widening of the adjacent Oak Street, which will be rebuilt to feature 20-foot-wide sidewalks. This will allow for and encourage patio restaurants to overlook the park, Johnston says.

Following these efforts, the rail yards will shaped and grassed over for a greener appearance. This paves the way for 2010, when the 38-acre former CN Rail lot is expected to feature a complete series of waterfront attractions, including a children's amusement area, an ice rink and a pond.

What's more, these items are slated to frame a central water fountain alongside various trellises, creating an Italian-style town square capable of holding up to 300 people for various functions.

However, the installation of these features carries a possible price tag of nearly $20 million, Johnston says. As a result, CWF has already begun to look at private-sector funding partnerships to help sponsor a third of the construction projects in the hopes of having the remaining two-thirds covered by various funding agencies. As an example, he says the CWF is currently in talks with the Royal Bank downtown to sponsor the town square, as the bank is adjacent to its proposed location.

Despite the hefty cost associated with the overall project, the benefits will heavily favor the city's tourism efforts as well as the downtown business community, Johnston says. Many of the abandoned office and commercial spaces in the downtown core will likely begin to see a renewal as high-end residential facilities. In turn, this will spark a chain reaction of economic development that will benefit the city as a whole.

"Once you have the park and you have the first few rows of these buildings renovated and made into residential housing that's quite nice, then you've got a catalyst that will slowly spread its way out and affect the whole city. We've never had a town square or central part of the city, and this park is going to do that."

This expected resurgence of interest in the area requires some advanced planning, says Johnston, who has met with city officials to try and ensure private developments won't obscure the public view of the waterfront park. Instead, higher buildings will be built increasingly further back from the downtown core, creating an amphitheater effect.

"What's happened in Toronto is they've put these great big high buildings at the waterfront, and nobody gets to see it. If we do things right in North Bay, we'll only have one- or two-storey buildings along the Oak Street area."

In this manner, the city will spur not only direct economic development through an increasingly appealing downtown business environment, but also through an enhanced standard of living.

www.waterfrontfriends.org

By NICK STEWART

Northern Ontario Business
COPYRIGHT 2007 Laurentian Business Publishing, Inc.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT: NORTH BAY
Author:Stewart, Nick
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Oct 1, 2007
Words:781
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