The making, and remaking, of a bustling downtown district

With spring upon us, the commercial core of Kamloops is ramping up to a bustling schedule of festivities, and at the centre of it all is Victoria Street.

It hasn't been an easy ride for entrepreneurs willing to invest in the "spine" of the downtown Kamloops.

But these days, a North American trend that analysts have called the great inversion is bringing the masses back from the outskirts of towns to city cores.

It's leading to vibrant commercial centres all over Canada and the U.S., and in downtown Kamloops it harks back to a century ago when the street thronged with a mixture of residential, commercial and social gathering points.

"Today you see residential (development) occurring adjacent to Victoria Street, local governments with some major investments in the downtown core and private investment," said city planning manager Randy Lambright.

It hasn't always been this way.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the trending exodus to the suburbs saw large anchor stores in the downtown move to the new Aberdeen Mall, leaving smaller commercial ventures to potentially flounder.

Kamloops survived that era thanks in part to several Victoria Street business owners whose vision and relentlessness helped create the enchanting hub for commerce and entertainment that we see today.

"The decisions that you make today have ramifications for what happens in the future," said Lambright.

"The vision that occurred (in the 1980s) said, 'You know what? We're not going to be like a lot of other communities. We're going to invest in our downtown core. We're going to revitalize it.'"

Lambright is now talking to some of these influential businessmen to determine how they believe their ideas have held up so many years later.

During the B.C. Business Improvement Association (BIA) annual general meeting in Kamloops April 15 to 17, Lambright will share what he has learned from those surviving visionaries and give some insight into what's to come.

Although some are no longer living, their legacy remains. Among the most memorable was Mr. Downtown, Ray Fuoco, who died in 1994.

Fuoco moved to Kamloops from Italy in 1913. He and his brother Benjamin bought the 200 block of Victoria Street - renamed Fuoco Block - for $30,000 in 1930. They proceeded to establish several businesses, including McAllister and Howard menswear, which is now run by Ray's grandson David.

Ray's son Reg said men like his dad as well as Archie Green, Jim Bevan and Wilbur Field were ahead of their time.

Ray and his cohorts were responsible for bringing parkades into the downtown in 1966 and 1967.

And when the Woodwards, Hudson's Bay and Sears moved to Aberdeen, they lobbied the City hard for major infrastructure changes, which they vowed to pay for.

Those changes turned the main artery from an auto-oriented, drive-by corridor into a pedestrian stroll in 1980.

The project would replace angled parking with broad sidewalks, install street furniture and trees and beautify the area long before the term beautify became a BIA buzzword.

"He really looked ahead and whatever he planned out it was ahead of its time but it worked," said Reg of his father. "He saw something that some of us didn't see."

Reg said he has heard enough glowing feedback to know those old business owners' dreams
became reality.

But that was only the latest transmutation for Victoria Street.

Since its inception in 1884, it has been in a perpetual state of renewal.

As Kamloops historical writer John Stewart once wrote, "The most important feature of Victoria Street has always been change."

Stewart summarized the history of Victoria Street in 1981 in a series of published articles now archived in the Kamloops Museum and Archives.

As happened in many communities across Canada, development began with the railway.

In 1880, the original town centre was on Main Street - what is now called Victoria Street West
at Overlanders Bridge.
But flanked by the Thompson River on one side and the bluffs on the other, the street could not act as a central point for development.

And when Canadian Pacific Railway ran its tracks straight down the middle of Main Street and built its station half a mile east in 1884, Kamloops politician and businessman J.A. Mara saw an opportunity.

He and two partners from Victoria formed the New Townsite Syndicate and bought a parcel of land forming what is now First Avenue to Valleyview and Columbia Street to the Thompson River.

A subdivision of the downtown was formed as well as a map showing a street grid with only three names: River Street, Front Street and Victoria Street.

As new people and businesses moved to Kamloops, they set up near the station just as the property owners had anticipated.

"From the very beginning there was a great mixture of uses with stables practically next door to banks and homes next to hotels," wrote Stewart.

That mixed usage was its success and it's something planners strive for 130 years later.

These days there's optimism among entrepreneurs and municipal leaders as cities see a reversal from the flight to the suburbs that, in some places, started as far back as the 1950s.

But with the looming challenge of affordability, said Lambright, the future of Victoria Street depends on an important question.

"How can we encourage people to live in the downtown core?"

During a recent affordable housing symposium, Lambright learned of an innovative approach for so-called millennials - the 19 to 30-year-old demographic - called micro-suites.

The idea is to build tiny apartments of around 400 square feet in the downtown.

The notion looks like a winner on several levels since it appeals to budgetary constraints, limited access to transportation and a social lifestyle while benefiting surrounding businesses, said Lambright.

"The local cafÉ is their kitchen, the local restaurants are their dining rooms, they can get their entertainment, they go to a library or a museum, so they don't need a big living room," said Lambright.

"So their house just becomes a place to simply decompress, sleep, clean up, get breakfast and move on."

The plan has its drawbacks - it could create transience since 400 square feet feels pretty cramped when kids come into the picture. And that could undermine a sense of community.

But it also harks back to the days when people worked, lived, shopped, socialized and learned all within a few square miles, and for many, that's the very definition of community.

Reg said he thinks his father would've been glad to see a return to that old way of life. And these days it just makes sense.

"People didn't have cars and didn't have to travel too far (a century ago). Now people don't want to do that, either, the cost and the time of doing it. They want to live where they're working and shopping," he said.

"Everything is coming back downtown."

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