While listening to this podcast, I was struck by how similar the discussion sounded to what I had experienced while living in Castlegar, a town of around 7,500 in rural BC.

The Pending Financial Implosion of Small Town America – StrongTowns Podcast. (link to site here).

Strongtowns is a blog and podcast that has packaged a couple of core themes together in the hopes that the discussion on the web and in communities will move towards a greater understanding of the flaws in the current models of community planning and development, and some of the answers to our predicaments of infrastructure deficit and obese streetscapes.

What struck me was the absurdity of a small town (Castlegar) with four separate commercial zones (three existing, and one proposed at the airport), each effectively taking something from the others. There is little to blame for this but poor land use planning that led to the zoning of lands outside the downtown core for retail and commercial purposes, which led to a cascading disinvestment in the downtown. The latest such venture is the airport lands, held up as, “the only flat commercial land left in the Kootenays”. But for a community that wqas so interested in sustainability over the past couple of years, the decision to invest in development of utilities to these lands represents a huge departure froma plan for a walkable, compact community, and instead dilutes the density of commercial space. In Castlegar, the only recent example of a major retail business moving closer to downtown was Lordco, an automotive parts retailer, who located their new building in the new and used car core of Castlegar.Fundamental to what Strongtowns sees as the challenges to the financial sustainability of small towns, (and yes Castlegar is a small town folks), are the following practices.

  • Developing the outskirts while investment in the core declines
  • streetscapes that reflect auto-centric madness
  • parking lagoons and single storey developments

All of these are issues that Castlegar faces, and were brought up during the community input to the OCP process, yet the Airport Lands remains a priority of the current Mayor and Council.

As the City of Castlegar pushes forward with extensions to the water and sewer utilities to the proposed development of the Castlegar airport lands, several questions are raised in my mind:

  • what is the existing commercial floor area to population ratio in the City of Castlegar, even treating the commercial district as a regional one.
  • what is the expected tax revenue for the development when fully built out vs the cost to service.
  • what is the expected funding to the water and sewer utilities vs cost to maintain and replace assets in the lifespan.
  • has the City determined the cost of maintaining and operating the water, sewer, streetlights and snowplowing for the proposed development, will this cost be covered by taxes and user fees raised?
  • has the City determined the lifecycle cost of the assets gained through the development and provided a clear roadmap for funding these liabilities?
  • has the City conducted a market study to determine what businesses may choose to locate in this development and which existing businesses may be impacted by the change in competition?
I wrote my thoughts on the airport lands back in December 2009, the only thing that has changed, is that the province handed out a grant for $375,000 for this $3 million + project. Before you close this page and forget about this issue, have a listen to the podcast above, and tell me if Castlegar is really that different from the communities described in the US in the podcast?

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

One reply on “Small Towns – Big Appetites”

  1. We need people like you in all our small towns, Mike.

    I completely agree with you that we should not have split up our commercial area into yet another part, the Airport Lands. Especially for something so basically unproductive as a Casino, and to pour our taxpayers’ money into new infrastructure that will still have to be paid for in perpetuity, whether a Casino or any other business goes under.

    At the forthcoming municipal election this Saturday there is one new candidate who wants to encourage more store occupancy in the Downtown. I will be voting for him.

    Years ago when the Downtown revitalization took place at the cost of about ten million dollars, the rent [taxes] on my tiny one-person place of business, on the very edge of Downtown, went up by S100 a per month, with the powers-that-be saying that would last for ten years and the revitalization would be paid for by that time and the rate would drop.

    Therefore 10 years x 12 months x $100 = $12,000 that I, as a single person store, paid to the council. Nothing has ever been said about the cost of Revitalization being finally paid. I guess it was never kept separate on the books and they never kept account. There should have been a kind of mortgage-burning to celebrate.

    Can you imagine the effect that had on the Downtown businesses? No wonder they started moving out of Downtown and now we have an Uptown and the Downtown is more or less dead, with empty stores, broken windows; and walk along the streets Downtown at eight in the evening and you will a lone woman (me) walking with her little dog and seldom another human in sight.

    I know that sometimes the Downtown is filled; Sunfest Parade, Christmas Parade,
    or whenever something can be put on that will bring the citizens out for a couple of hours because the parking downtown is pretty good you know. But the citizens are not there to do business because what they have come for is a bit of fun and cheap hotdogs or a pancake breakfast. I bet the local eateries do not benefit.

    Maybe I had shut up for now and get on with trying to earn a few more shekals to keep going. Oh, but the Downtown was so vibrant in 1980s before the Revitalization.

    Things move on. Or maybe not. :-((

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