Sydney's downtown district sees new life as vacant spaces fill up
Regeneration co-ordinator says number of vacant commercial properties has fallen since he began work last year
Sydney's downtown and surrounding area have been plagued with an exodus of businesses, leaving empty storefronts, vacant spaces and a couple of large derelict buildings.
But that is starting to change after a concerted effort by the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
Bradley Murphy, CBRM's downtown regeneration co-ordinator, started his new job last year by creating an inventory of vacant spaces.
He found 38 rentable properties and then set about connecting businesses with landlords.
Since then, a couple of businesses have closed, but the number of vacant properties has dropped to 29.
"It's always going to be in flux, but now there's a real intention of trying to focus energy into the downtown, and you're seeing a difference because of that," Murphy said.
Incentives in place
The municipality and business community are working on incentives, including possibly phasing in tax increases for new developments or renovations. CBRM currently has a survey posted on its website asking citizens for input on that idea.
One incentive already underway is the Smart Spaces project, which aims to make the downtown more attractive by placing art in the windows of vacant spaces.
Murphy, who has some architectural training, can help businesses free of charge to redesign their spaces and make them more attractive to renters.
"If your budget is $10, put some flowers in the window. If your budget is $100,000, maybe replace the siding," he said. "Just try to find a project that you can do on your property and something you can do to enhance it.
"If everybody did that, it would be a totally different town."
The former Cape Breton Post building on Dorchester Street has been vacant for years and its windows and doors have been broken. The former train station on Dodd Street, just outside the downtown, is in similar condition.
Murphy said those buildings make the downtown look worse than it is.
Paul Burt, CBRM's manager of building, planning and licensing, said the empty buildings on Dodd and Dorchester streets make up the bulk of public complaints received every year.
They've been vandalized, broken into and hit with graffiti, but the owners have cleaned them up every time an order has been issued.
While they have attracted a lot of attention, Burt said, there are some new businesses moving into the area.
Mike MacDonald owns Revive Hair Studio, which started out with 400 square feet of space in Sydney's north end next to downtown 13 years ago.
Two years later, MacDonald moved to a strip mall in Sydney River, eventually filling 2,200 square feet of retail space with a spa and salon.
He recently moved back downtown after he bought and renovated the old Knights of Columbus building on George Street, nearly tripling the size of his operation.
The main floor is now a maze of private body care and spa treatment rooms, and the second floor — a former bingo hall — is now an open, New York loft-style hair salon.
MacDonald said his only incentive was a drive to get back downtown where he started.
"We took an old building, an old structure that was vacant the last four years but was so part of the community and had so much history … [and] we put life back into a building downtown," he said. "That feels really amazing."
Part of the attraction was getting more foot traffic, and part of it was a desire to play a role in improving the business climate downtown, MacDonald said.
He is optimistic his investment will pay off, and he hopes other entrepreneurs follow his lead downtown.
"I guess there is a little bit inside of me that wants to prove the fact that yeah, Cape Breton, we can do this and we don't have to be dependent on federal or provincial handouts, and we have to stop relying on the idea that someone's going to bring us industry here," MacDonald said.