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Yellowknifer editorial: City inertia on downtown sets in

0502range41_emptylots.jpg Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo Empty lots on Range Street, Feb. 4, 2020

The issue: Downtown real estate
We say: What’s the plan?

Yellowknifer doesn’t want to say we told you so.

But with the historic Gold Range Hotel and Bar now up for sale, listed for nearly $2 million, it appears the city’s troubled downtown core is unfortunately shaping up precisely as an editorial published in February 2013 predicted: 

“There is a real danger for inertia to set in while city council is playing developer and trying to figure out what to do with these properties once the bulldozers level them."

Seven years on, municipal politicians find themselves in exactly this position. “Range Street,” as 50 Street is affectionately known, is still waiting for a much-needed street and sidewalk resurfacing. Every property referred to in that 2013 editorial is still for sale, almost all of them now vacant and bulldozed as predicted.

The real Dead North, it appears, isn’t a film festival, but a real-life horror story about a rotting downtown core.

Shortly after the city bought the 50/50 lot in 2014, it shared visions of a skating rink framed by a hip streetscape of boutique retail and cafes. An ice pad may not have been the answer, but watching kids and families skating would have been preferable to watching politicians skirt the issue.

Coun. Niels Konge seems to be the only one talking about it. In a recent interview with Yellowknifer, he mentioned the fact that municipal lawmakers hadn’t had an update on the city’s growing stable of real estate for more than a year.

The Gold Range Hotel and Bar is for sale. The Coldwell Banker listing worth nearly $2 million adds to an increasing pile of lots or buildings in the downtown core up for sale, many owned by the city itself and now empty, like this space next to the Raven Pub – a problematic trend that could end up costing taxpayers big.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Councillors should be asking questions about this slow-motion disaster at the very least, if not bringing suggestions of their own – or from residents, for that matter -- to the table.

With 2020 now in full swing, the downtown and the well-published challenges that live there are clearly beyond an incremental response. 

Ideally, a large hotelier would swoop in, as Konge suggests, and snap up all these tired and derelict properties and rebuild them as a shiny new hotel and convention centre. As long as tourism can hold, and there is no guarantee it will given recent diplomatic problems with China – the city's primary source of winter tourism – and now, the Coronavirus outbreak, there appears to still be a need for more accommodations in Yellowknife.  

But there's a lot to conspire against that, unfortunately. 

There's the moribund Centre Square Mall and its dysfunctional, discordant ownership, for one. Until the city can secure a commitment from the mall's two owners on what to do with this massive property, it will remain a half-empty, crumbling hole in the city's downtown core, draining the life force from all around it.   

And of course, there are the so-called “social issues” that have driven many retailers – and customers – out of the downtown core. The problem has become somewhat concentrated by the establishment of the day shelter and sobering centre further down the street but the perception remains that the downtown core is a bad place to do business. 

As it stands right now, the real estate market around this one block section of 50 Street is a tough sell. City hall is holding fast with its ludicrous asking price of $1.45 million – the same price it paid for the property in 2014 – but other owners have dialed down expectations. The Smart Bee property, listed at $459,000 in 2014, is now selling for $299,000.

The reality is there is likely not much hope for downtown revitalization without some downtown intervention. The longer the city sits on its laurels waiting for the right buyer for the 50/50 lot and its other 50 Street properties to come along the more difficult and more expensive it will be to develop them.  

The city is desperate for a Dene cultural centre, and a visitor’s centre. Why not co-locate both in the 50/50 lot, the undeniable heart of the downtown core? 

Could there be a more powerful statement to would-be investors, would-be visitors and would-be residents than turning the city’s shame into a point of pride?

Naturally, this can’t all fall on the municipal government. The federal and territorial governments have a major role to play here, too. They must be reminded that Whitehorse has a cultural centre and they have an obligation in facilitating that here as well, as would be the visitor's centre, currently boarded up and slumping into the swampy shores of Frame Lake. But the plan has to come from the community.

If council and city administration is truly serious about downtown revitalization and revamping its tourism bona fides, it's going to have to get serious about the 50 Street properties it purchased, in one case, nearly a decade ago. 

Letting them moulder as a pop-up park or parking lot is doing city taxpayers who paid for them a disservice, and only worsening the downtown's decline.