Arts and culture district envisioned to revitalize Windsor's downtown
Thursday, February 18, 2021
The Windsor Star/Brian Cross
A committee of downtown movers and shakers is pushing plans to transform Windsor’s long-struggling core into a vibrant arts and culture mecca or theatre district.
“We’re looking at beautification, we’re looking at lights, we’re looking at greenery, the opportunity to have outdoor cafes and really a sense of beauty and sense of place downtown,” says Vincent Georgie, the longtime Windsor International Film Festival executive director, who hopes this type of branding will help improve the quality of life for people throughout Windsor and make downtown a place where people want to visit and live.
That’s why he was “so delighted” by the recent Windsor Works report which focuses on downtown as a key component in diversifying and strengthening the entire city’s economic future. Transforming the downtown is precisely what a downtown districting committee has been meeting and talking about since it started last August.
“This is literally what we’re doing,” said Georgie, a University of Windsor acting vice-president who has major connections to the downtown with his film festival role as well as with the university’s School of Creative Arts.
The committee includes leaders from the Downtown Windsor Business Improvement Association, Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor Symphony Orchestra — which manages the city-owned Capitol Theatre — St. Clair College and University of Windsor, as well as property owners and residents from the downtown and Ward 3 Coun. Rino Bortolin.
Its members have taken daytime and nighttime walks to gauge the possibilities and have engaged two local university architects to help plan out the vision. Operating away from the spotlight until now, they’ve emerged with the release of a new city economic diversification report.
Seeing how heavily the Windsor Works consultants’ recommendations focused on the need for downtown revitalization, Georgie felt the need to seize the moment. Downtown districting is about connecting all the cultural institutions downtown with a unifying theme, he said, adding that a final plan is still in the works.
“Is it about lands, is it about alleys, is it about lighting, is it about greenery, signage, wayfinding, to really give it a sense of a branded neighbourhood?” Georgie asks.
What really got his juices flowing on the idea of districting, he said, was the creation in 2019 of WIFF alley, an impressive fix-up of an unappealing downtown alley with murals and lighting to connect two of the festival’s main venues, the Capitol and Chrysler Theatre. The beautified alley became a destination for people to visit during the festival and throughout the year and started people thinking about ways to repeat that success throughout the downtown.
Then came news of two major city hall projects in the works, directly to the east and west of downtown — plans to spruce up and spur redevelopment along University Avenue West and Wyandotte Street West, and create a civic square and esplanade linking the new city hall with the downtown riverfront.
“So this train is moving already, you need to connect it,” Georgie said.
“Why would you spend all that money, the huge budget for all the work on University Avenue and all this vision and money for all of this stuff in the esplanade, and then not properly connect the whole thing?
“It doesn’t make sense to not move forward with downtown districting,” he said. “Of course, of course this needs to be done.”
City council has embarked on its first districting plan for Walkerville, and has budgeted $5 million with ambitions to do districting in other commercial areas of the city.
Members of the downtown committee are suggesting downtown should be next. Asked about this on Wednesday, Mayor Drew Dilkens said: “I don’t even think we have to wait. I think we can do two things at the same time.
“Vincent certainly has a bold vision and I think we could work simultaneously, and with council’s help get money in the budget … to move forward with some great initiatives.”
Windsor Works does suggest theming and districting as well as the need to revitalize the downtown, repeating a decades-old mantra, the mayor said. In recent years, the city has spent around $200 million on downtown investments, including community improvement plans to encourage residential development, building the downtown aquatic centre, taking control of the Capitol, buying the art gallery building, waterfront improvements and investing $10 million to help with the university’s transformation of the former armouries building into a School of Creative Arts.
“It’s not where we want it to be yet and we’re not going to stop,” said Dilkens, who said whatever districting is done needs to be authentic. Walkerville’s distillery district, for example, harkens to the neighbourhood’s historic connection to the Hiram Walker operation.
Based on all the cultural institutions in the downtown and the millions spent by the city supporting them over the years, Dilkens thinks an arts and culture district or theatre district would be a nice fit. “I think it can be very authentic and so I certainly support that vision.”
Committee member Sheila Wisdom, executive director of Windsor symphony, said what she’d like to see from districting is the kind of activity and socializing seen on Saturday mornings at the Downtown Farmer’s Market, only all the time. And the districting must reflect what the area’s about, she added.
“It is exciting, it is,” she said.
Committee member Pat Papadeas, vice-chair of the downtown BIA, said the film festival’s success in attracting people from all over into the core served as a starting point for the committee.
“Look, we are the theatre district, this is where the theatres are and that’s something we should be proud of downtown,” said Papadeus, who is also active with WIFF and is a professor at St. Clair College. “So how can we take this idea of districting … and take a look at how that can be done downtown?”
She said the BIA has high hopes that the city will support downtown districting.
“It presents a really significant opportunity for the businesses and for property owners alike.”