Report: N.S. needs more vital downtown areas
Without a vibrant downtown, smaller communities that are struggling will continue to decline, says a report from the umbrella group for the province’s municipalities.
Some downtowns “are thriving,” said the interim report from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities’ towns task force. But others are suffering economically due to various reasons, it said.
“Depopulation, competition from big-box stores on the outskirts of towns, high commercial property taxation and changing retail patterns all play a role,” the report said.
The nine-member task force has been studying the province’s 30 towns and will file recommendations with the Dexter government. The province has committed $100,000 to help the group with its research.
A Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations spokeswoman said Thursday the department expects the task force’s final report to be filed this fall.
According to the interim study, significant population losses in some towns “were offset by strong gains in others.” Geography was closely linked to prosperity in several communities, it said.
“Of the 11 towns showing growth, seven were in the ‘shadow’ of Halifax Regional Municipality,” the report said.
It said being situated relatively close to the Atlantic region’s largest city helps, but it’s not the whole story when it comes to towns doing well.
Local businesses often take a lead role in downtowns that are prospering.
“Merchants themselves can play a key role in assisting (local) councils maintain downtown viability through business improvement district commissions,” said the report, which the union recently released.
Recommendations were presented at five regional UNSM meetings to elicit feedback.
The report, called A Path to Municipal Viability, said “new tools and incentives” are needed to help boost economic growth in downtown areas.
Among the recommendations:
A building code review should be done “to seek ways to encourage commercial and residential development” in downtowns.
Town councils should have the ability to “apply a tax freeze through abatement and/or rebate for a specified time” as an incentive to renovate older buildings in downtowns.
Councils should have the power to “waive building permit fees and development fees” in downtowns.
Towns should be allowed to offer “a lower commercial tax rate within defined geographic boundaries” of downtowns.
The task force said the long-term economic health of communities would improve with more regional co-operation between competing towns.
“The economies of Nova Scotia communities are interrelated,” the report said, “and there are opportunities for municipalities to work together to create growth through such tools as joint economic zones.”
Susan Mader Zinck, communications adviser with Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, would not provide official reaction to the task force’s interim recommendations.
The task force is to present its final report at the union’s annual meeting in September in Halifax.