Victoria has one of the great mid-sized downtowns in North America; some readers of this column may disagree. As the executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) for one-and-a-half years, I am in awe of the vibrancy, energy and inclusivity of downtown. We have incredible retail shops, a world-renowned culinary and craft brew scene, attractive architecture with our mix of heritage and modern, all within a beautiful and natural setting.
Yet when I speak to some people, their impression of downtown is negative. Why?
It may be two sides of the same coin: Victoria’s urban renaissance. Over the last five years, downtown Victoria has seen tremendous growth in residential and commercial construction, and yes, bike lanes. The technology sector has joined the more traditional downtown economic engines of tourism and government. New businesses are bringing remarkable experiences to residents and visitors alike. Craft breweries and niche eateries are springing up all over downtown.
Change may be another word for renaissance, and change is always disruptive.
Why do we have one of the best mid-sized downtowns in North America? If we compare ourselves to other jurisdictions with similar-sized downtowns, such as Halifax and Portland, you’ll notice similar attributes to Victoria. Both cities are increasing the number of people who live downtown. Like Victoria, both have diverse and inclusive urban centres. They have a vibrant arts and culture scene. In successful downtowns, local businesses and national chains thrive because of their proximity to one another. They are places where entrepreneurs invest and grow. This is downtown Victoria today.
One of my roles at this dynamic, business-led association is to market downtown Victoria. It’s true, I am an ambassador for downtown. As such, I encourage people from Sooke to Sidney to make the trip. My passion for downtown Victoria means I also acknowledge there are parking challenges, homeless individuals and panhandling, and construction delays. Yet the construction cranes in the core, combined with the low retail vacancy rate, and record-breaking tourism numbers, all strongly suggest something wonderful (if rather disruptive) is happening downtown.
Through the DVBA, I’ve met so many incredible local businesses owners, city staff and councillors, social service providers and residents, all passionate about this emerging urban neighbourhood. All downtowns have similar issues to ours, but few have the beauty, safety, diverse business mix, music scene and sense of community. Most mid-sized cities would gladly have our downtown, issues and all.
Over the coming months, I will be sharing how downtown is evolving. And, I invite you to experience all we have to offer.
Jeff Bray is the executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association