Downtown business owners — both past and present — say there is only one solution to a struggling downtown economy: people.

"The best subsidy you can give a business is 1,000 new customers," said Mark Boscariol, who sold his two downtown restaurants and opened new ones on Windsor's east side. "Bringing residential communities into the core is the solution."

As a former chair of the Downtown Windsor Business Improvement Association, he tried everything to get the city to encourage residential growth.

"Since 2003, I’ve been advocating for increasing residential development downtown," he said.

University and college key to recovery

It hasn't happened yet, but Boscariol said it is likely to once St. Clair College and the University of Windsor downtown campuses really take hold.

Boscariol claimed students of downtown campuses often choose to live downtown after graduation.

"I think the city’s done a wonderful thing with the college and the university. And in a couple years we’re going to see a longer-term benefit," he said.

Downtown retailer Ayad Saddy, who co-owns BB Branded, said he has already experienced an increase in business. Saddy said sales have doubled in the past year at his Ouellette Avenue clothing store.

"Now is the time to come downtown if you’re a retailer," he said.

Saddy has endured a high dollar, four years of construction and a fractured group of businesses in the core. He said he "almost didn't make it."

"As far as retail goes, we don’t have a sense of family as a retail group," Saddy said. "What we had to do is make it a specialty shop, a destination location. I believe that’s what downtown needs more of, destination locations."

That's something Boscariol pitched before he moved out of downtown.

"We tried to get like-minded retailers to cluster in one area," Boscariol said.

Boscariol envisioned Ouellette Avenue being "young and hip" and Chatham Street becoming "restaurant row."

Downtown lacks 'all the basics'

Boscariol and the current chair of the BIA, Larry Horwitz, both said downtown needs much more than is already there. Horwitz said the core is missing "all the basics."

There are 650 businesses downtown, and more than 100 of them are restaurants, Horwitz said.

He and Boscariol noted the core is missing shoe stores, butchers, bakers and florists, for example.

"We’re trying to attract new retail business and residents downtown. We have to give them the shops they need," Horwitz said.

In the meantime, Horwitz said the BIA is trying to entice "pop-up shops" to come downtown during the holidays and then eventually stay long-term.

"If things work out well, we’ll start our retail recruitment," he said.