Nova Scotia

Sydney's downtown district sees new life as vacant spaces fill up

Vacant commercial properties in Sydney's downtown are starting to fill up, thanks to a concerted effort by the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

Regeneration co-ordinator says number of vacant commercial properties has fallen since he began work last year

Bradley Murphy, Cape Breton Regional Municipality's downtown regeneration co-ordinator, says the number of vacant spaces has dropped since he began connecting businesses and landlords. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

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.

The former Cape Breton Post building on Dorchester Street has sparked hundreds of complaints, says Paul Burt, manager of building, planning and licensing for CBRM. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"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.

The former train station on Dodd Street is just outside the downtown area, but it has attracted a large number of complaints because of its condition. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Murphy said those buildings make the downtown look worse than it is.

"I think it can create a sort of black hole or a void of energy when you're walking down the street and you see a building that's completely empty or vacant," he said. "It brings down your perception of the area, and I would encourage some creative thinking here."

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, owner of Revive Hair Studio, recently moved back downtown after buying and renovating the former Knights of Columbus building on George Street. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

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.

MacDonald says he moved downtown to get more more foot traffic and also to play a role in improving the business climate downtown. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"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.

"We have the potential. We just have to do it ourself and we need to be optimistic for those who want to push forward and do it, and stop saying, 'Oh, I wouldn't risk that. You may fail.'"

About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 33 years. He has spent the last 15 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.