The City of Port Alberni has seen facade improvements and agricultural initiatives add a vibrant, welcoming look to the community over the past year.
Next up on the table is a six-million-dollar makeover for the city’s front door.
According to economic development manager, Pat Deakin, beautification was identified as one of the top 10 issues to tackle in Port Alberni’s 2012 Business Retention Survey, and the town has been making steady progress on this ever since. 2016 and 2017 marked noticeable improvements to both the downtown and uptown areas.
One of the largest driving forces behind these changes has been the city’s Facade Improvement Program.
“We’ve been asked at a couple of meetings to explain the program,” said Deakin. “People are really interested in how we’ve approached it. And we’re thrilled about its success.”
The program is fully subscribed for the second year in a row: 19 applications have been approved, spending close to $400,000 in total.
“They have to match the grant,” said Deakin. “But in pretty much every single instance, what they spend is way above the matching improvements they’re getting.”
In each of the last two years, the program has made $150,000 available to building owners or business owners to access the matching funds. “Last year, our initial statistics generated $640,000 in improvements,” said Deakin, although he now estimates it may be closer to $750,000.
The Facade Improvement Program was brought about in 2015, when city staff members canvassed different business districts in the community to ask about a commercial revitalization tax exemption bylaw that council was considering.
Deakin brought the concept of a Facade Improvement Program to city council, and council put $50,000 towards the program. The local Community Futures board also approved an additional $100,000 towards the program, and agreed to pay for architects’ fees and introduced a loan program.
These are two things that make Port Alberni’s program different from some communities, Deakin said.
“We don’t force any particular architectural style,” he said. “The architect brings some continuity to the projects.”
After last year’s success, city council and Community Futures are partnering to sponsor the project again this year. “It’s been a terrific partnership,” said Deakin. “I know it’s making an improvement in the community. You see your neighbour improve their house and decide you’d better get with the program.”
Three business owners have improved four buildings on one block of Johnston Road without accessing the Facade Improvement Program: Aaron Vissia at AV Financial Services, Darren and Laura Lee Brown at Boomerangs Café and Rene Carloni at Venue Financial Services and Gold & Silver Guy.
Agricultural improvements have also given the city a beautification boost. A series of planter boxes appeared along Johnston corridor last year, and these have had good reception from the public, according to Deakin. “The planters are a knockout,” he said. “Many people comment on them.”
Parks operations supervisor Rob Gaudreault said more planters are on the way, although they were ordered late this season and have not arrived yet.
“We’ll put a couple more up, if they come in before it’s too late,” he said.
Close to 1,000 trees were also planted at the city’s entrance along Highway 4 last month as part of a joint effort between the city and the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District. The trees were donated by Island Timberlands.
Work has also begun on the Millstone Park site between Victoria Quay and Catalyst Paper.
“We want to build half of it by the end of July,” said Gaudreault. This includes grass, a parking lot and a deck around the historic millstones.
The area will also include some rock to help protect the bank, but Gaudreault said parks maintenance is waiting for a “fishers window” to begin work on this, which hasn’t been determined yet.
“We’re hoping by the end of the summer it will be complete,” he said.
Johnston Road will be the city’s next area of attention.
“Previous councils have focused on the uptown area, because it’s the area that needs the most attention,” said Deakin. “But this council decided to look at Johnston Road, because it’s seen by 800,000 people twice each year.”
When Johnston Road corridor was first announced as a priority for development and beautification, many people came forward with ideas. So the city organized a charrette—a facilitated process, with guests including an employee from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and a Vancouver developer.
“Our focus was what do we want people to experience as they’re coming in to Port Alberni?” said Deakin. “What image do we want to convey? How do we want them to remember they’ve been in Port Alberni? We went through a process and that resulted in a concept plan that was presented to council.”
The concept plan featured six million dollars of recommendations, framed as a complete makeover of the front yard of the comunity. Council has applied to the federal gas tax strategic priorities fund for this project.
“If we’re not successful, we’ll be presenting to council how this should be phased over the next five to eight years,” said Deakin.