March 16, 2011

Service mall would have high profile benefits

As published in The Erin Advocate

In a recent letter to the editor, John Sutherland pitched the idea of a Visitor Information Centre next to the new Tim Horton's. There has not been much enthusiasm for the concept so far, but I think it could be expanded into a facility that meets a wide range of needs.

Communities often require a building that houses a variety of publicly oriented services, for groups that would never be able to build a structure of their own, but could afford to lease some space. It would be quite different from Centre 2000, a multi-use facility with an arena, high school, rental hall, library and theatre.

For now, let's call it the Multi-Use Facility #2. If it ever becomes a reality, a more interesting name could be found – "Mini Mall 2013" has a nice ring to it.

The building should be in a highly visible location for it achieve its purpose. Being next to Tim Horton's would guarantee a high profile, but other locations are possible. It all depends on developing a business plan to ensure the venture is profitable for whoever builds it.

I picture it as a relatively small indoor office mall, with a central foyer surrounded by various services, and hallways leading to others.

Tenants could include government functions, public agencies, non-profit groups and private businesses. Organizations might see an advantage to being located in the same building as others with something in common. For example, a real estate business might like to be close to an Information Centre that promoted Erin as a great place to live.

I do not know if developer Shane Baghai is interested in such a project, or who might ultimately lease space, but I will suggest some possibilities. I urge people to keep an open mind and consider the long-term benefits.

There could be a municipal component, like a satellite to the main Town of Erin offices. It would welcome and inform people about Erin (the whole Town), and aggressively market the Town, with a business development officer. There is always lots of talk about attracting light industry and boosting local employment, but not much action. Investment in such an effort could produce a financial advantage for the Town.

The Hills of Headwaters, or whatever tourism group we end up with, could find a natural home at the facility. The tourism shack at McMillan Park is pretty lame, with low traffic and a less than professional appearance.

There are various non-profit groups (business associations, service clubs, charities) that might have a need to rent or share space for offices, storage or meetings. Perhaps a certain percentage of the building could be reserved for the non-profit sector, instead of automatically filling it up with commercial customers.

The non-profit function that first comes to my mind does not exist yet, and that is a Senior Citizens' Centre. The room at Centre 2000, now being used by East Wellington Community Services for the Seniors Day Program and other activities for older adults, is not adequate for the range of services that should be available in this community.

If Erin seniors want such a facility, they are going to have to work hard to make it happen. It just seems to be more feasible as part of larger project.

I have a sneaking suspicion that a mini-mall facility for public services may be too complicated a project for short term development. It could take a while to get all the players together.

And let's face it, if the Town really cared about aggressively promoting itself, it would already be doing so. It is not a legal requirement.

It would be much simpler to build a store next to Tim Horton's. But it would be better to build something more innovative and valuable to the community. The Town may not be able to lead such a project, but it could certainly participate in a private sector initiative.