ST. CATHARINES, Ont. — The volunteer drivers at the 2017 Scotties, who schlep players and media between the hotel and the arena, never quite ask the question directly. They hint at the topic though, often and gently.
"So, do you get time to see anything, outside of the arena?" they might ask.
Or, maybe it’s something like: "So, had a chance to try any of the restaurants on St. Paul Street?"
What they’re really wondering, what they really want to know, is what visitors here for the Canadian women’s curling championship think of their city. St. Catharines has changed, in the last decade; now, it’s showing off a youthful face.
The good news, for those volunteers, is that around the Scotties, buzz about St. Catharines is roundly positive. Crowds at Meridian Centre have been robust and energetic and could approach sell-out levels for the playoffs.
And the arena, which opened in September 2014 as home of the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs, is pleasing. It’s situated in a steep valley at the hem of downtown, its upper level connected by pretty bridges to the pedestrian drag above.
Between draws, visitors spill over those bridges and into the quirky pubs that line St. Paul Street. At one of the most popular, Merchant Ale House, they chug local microbrews with names such as Drunken Monkey Oatmeal Stout.
This flurry of activity is still relatively new for downtown St. Catharines. Not so long ago, the area was pockmarked with blight. There were no bustling pubs or vegan doughnut shops. It didn’t draw big crowds on a Saturday night.
"It used to be like a ghost town," says Jeff Burch, a former city councillor.
Today, Burch is executive director of the Niagara Folk Arts Multicultural Centre, which supports newcomers to the region. But between 2006 and 2014 he served on city council, and helped spearhead the $50-million arena.
There is vigorous debate about whether arenas actually help local economies, as is often claimed by owners seeking public tax dollars; many economists kibosh that idea. (Just look at the arena boondoggle in Glendale, Ariz.)
But in St. Catharines, almost everyone I spoke to names the arena — along with the new 95,000-sq. ft. First Ontario Performing Arts Centre next door — as a jewel in the downtown’s rejuvenation. Perhaps this offers a lesson.
Location, Burch says, is everything. The Meridian Centre was designed to integrate with the city in such a way that attendees wouldn’t just drive in for an event, hop in their cars and leave; they have to walk through downtown.
Besides, he adds, it’s not like there was much on the arena site before; just an aging sore on the city’s heart.
"There was a lot of negativity in the area," he says. "It was a real kind of struggle over almost a decade, to get people thinking positively to move forward. A lot of people would just be like, ‘the downtown, forget about it, it’s dead.’
"Now that it’s built, people can see what the plan was," he adds. "And the plan ended up working to a large degree in terms of drawing people back to the downtown... It turned the worst-looking area into the best-looking area."
But now, the concern for Niagara is shifting. With Toronto’s real estate market continuing to bloat like an overfilled balloon, money is spilling south. In addition to outside investment, retirees are returning to Niagara from Toronto.
As a result, housing prices here — once comparatively stable and notably low, for the Greater Toronto Area — are beginning to swell.
Meanwhile, in June the province announced a 60-kilometre Go Train expansion, which will connect Niagara Falls to Toronto with stops in St. Catharines and Hamilton; that could make the region more attractive to Toronto workers.
(That said, there’s no immediate rush about it — the new Go Train stops won’t come online until 2021 to 2023.)
All that may be good news for some homeowners. But combined with the gentrification of the city’s core, it also puts stress on lower-income residents. Affordable housing is scarce; critics say the city isn’t doing enough to tackle it.
Burch, who ran for mayor in 2014 and came a close second to current mayor Walter Sendzik, is one of them.
"The council elected in 2014 really needed to move forward with plans to address poverty, and address the affordable housing crisis in the area," he says. "They didn’t really do that. When you have this kind of development in the downtown area, you need to put some thought into those issues."
That’s especially pressing, given the economic realities in St. Catharines. The sharp decline of the manufacturing industry through the 1990s and 2000s hit the region hard, though some of those jobs are beginning to return.
In 2015, mayor Sendzik created an anti-poverty task force; last year, he announced a "compassionate city" pilot project. It included an online module and training for city staff, on how to better engage with vulnerable residents.
(The initiative has a website, CompassionateSTC.ca. It may be of interest to Winnipeggers curious about how other Canadian cities are tackling their poverty reduction strategies; some of the ideas may be a good fit in Manitoba.)
Yet none of this is visible to the visitors here for Scotties, who are mostly concerned with finding places to eat and relax after the bustle of busy days. For us, the colourful storefronts of downtown St. Catharines are a revelation.
And when the Scotties volunteers ask if we’ve had a chance to get out, to get lunch, to see the city; all we need to do is respond honestly. "I love the downtown," I tell them, and watch a pleased smile spread across their faces.
This week, St. Catharines has put its best face forward. It is a city finding its way into the future; it has both typical and unique problems. This moment in its history may be pivotal; it is also, Burch says, a moment full of promise.
"There are a lot of challenges, but because of the location that we’re in, there’s a lot of opportunity," he says. "It’s going to be really important what local governments do."