Where is the Kingston I loved?

What happened to the Kingston I used to know and love?? 

It seems that our once favourite weekend holiday spot has become a disappointment.  And this feeling has been echoed back in 2009, by a writer for the ‘Kingstonist’ here.  But first, let me tell you what we still love about Kingston.

We visited yesterday in a bit of a celebratory mood after our Skye-dog got a clean bill of health after completing her chemo treatment in late August.  Yeah! 

Anyway, we have loved Kingston for many reasons:

1.  We love that we can stay with our dog in one of two hotels right next to the marina downtown.  We get a ground-floor room and have easy access in and out for dog walks and ball throwing in the adjacent grassy area. 

2.  We love that we can walk throughout downtown, where water bowls are placed outside for dogs to drink from on hot days and we can sit at cafes (and some restaurants, shh, Chez Piggy) with her, either at our feet or on the other side of the railing, and everyone smiles at her as they walk by.

3.  We love that we can have great food at places like Chez Piggy or the Black Dog Cafe.  We also love that we can take great food back to our hotel room, should the weather be inclement, from places like Pan Chancho or Tara Natural Foods or Cooke’s.  And we can get great coffee at Coffee & Company or try the hot chocolate at the Mug & Truffle Chocolate Cafe (I haven’t been here yet but it sounds amazing!)

store front

4.  We love that we can shop at beautiful stores like Paradiso, Trug’s or the many small and unique spots that help give character to downtown Kingston.

Especially during holiday season when there are treasures like these displayed outside:

But wait, these stores are gone! :c(  And let me say that I think downtown Kingston is suffering.

Our visit yesterday allowed us to see for the first time the newly completed “K Rock Centre“, a 7000 person stadium, ice rink, conference centre and event location.  This giant building is a hop, step and jump away from the picturesque Princess, Brock and Ontario Streets and no doubt will bring hoards of people to this area when events are scheduled and send them into the bars nearby afterwards.

My first reaction was that this new building stimulated the construction that took place in 2010 to replace the infrastructure around the southern tip of downtown Kingston.  Surely the owners/investors of this building would require some kind of assurance that the whole sewer, utility and road quality around it wouldn’t collapse under the pressure of added weight and traffic, both vehicular and foot?

Whatever the impulse (the sewer system was archaic, after all, and its overhaul was certainly long overdue), road work took place last year and although I understand these things are necessary to keep the invisible workings of businesses and life running smoothly, there is also a big price to pay.  Plus, the kind of re-visioning that takes place on the heels of this upheaval is critical to making sure the soul of a place is not ravaged by those who are just looking at the bottom line and possibly, re-election.

A story appeared in the magazine Kingston Life about the road reconstruction and how everyone worked together to make it a great success.  After all, affected businesses were given a cheque for $1000 as compensation (a nice gesture but a drop in the bucket when it comes to losses!)  But it also goes on to list the businesses that succumbed to the drop in sales both during and in advance of the excavation:  Paradiso, S & R Department Store, Sir Gawain and others were affected.  The work began in March of 2010 and by late April, the parking garage at the Confederation Place Hotel had collapsed, resulting in the whole area being closed down for inspectors to assess the safety of the structure and surrounding ones.  The author of this article quotes the youthful project manager who said, “[The hotel closure] made the temperature on the street go ‘way up.”  These were words spoken by Stacey Corcoran, the 29-year-old daughter of the excavating firm’s president, Dan Corcoran, who had the challenging job of communications director.

But the owner of Sir Gawain clothing store says that even before the road work began, sales were down 15 to 20% and when the hotel garage collapsed, they lost 80% of their business. 

I am left to wonder what the grand scheme for downtown Kingston is?  The plan is to do the same road and infrastructure work further north on Princess Street next year, which will send shivers down the spine of businesses up there. 

On our drive back to Ottawa, we were left to contemplate what it was that Kingston had lost.  Most obviously, specific businesses that contributed to our enjoyment of the place were now gone.  Many had been replaced with shops catering to students and those looking for a bargain.  The kinds of retail places that enrich my soul and draw my interest (not to mention my money), have been replaced by dollar stores, purveyors of trendy and throw-away clothing and accessories, tourist tchotkes and fast food outlets.    The kind of stores you’d find in a mall where turn-over is everything and ambience is nothing.  Seeing the historic and majestic architecture that is so prevalent in downtown Kingston housing stores like these is, in my opinion, a travesty. 

Then I wonder, if we lose these shops where the owners are present, working long hours and searching far and wide for the most beautiful and unique products, will we ever get them back?  Will this kind of shopping experience where entering a store was more like entering a beautifully appointed home rather than a series of product displays (and I use the word ‘display’ loosely) be gone forever?  My world appreciates patina, both old and new, skilled craftsmanship, usefulness and value.  Are these the same things for the ‘younger generation’, where they may never know homes that are old, full of history and character, or products that have been hand-crafted rather than mass produced? 

Or, am I crying in the wilderness?  I know what I am saying has been said before and that perhaps I feel it more strongly because I was one of those retailers (in Ottawa) trying to sell unique and hand-made works of art in a setting that was beautiful and who was also adversely affected by year-long infrastructure repair. 

Beyond the shops lost, we noticed the quality of the streetscape outside the stores.  Street-sized planters were cracked and empty, garbage containers were dented, damaged and needing a fresh paint job, and the overall feeling was that the remaining vendors, landlords and land owners weren’t interested in even making an effort.  Granted, I understand that if these street accessories were going to be replaced in 2012, it makes no sense to replace them now.  But, leaving planters empty when they could be overflowing with late season glory, especially during harvest season and a still active tourist month, is beyond me.

If the economy of downtown Kingston has been shaken by the world-wide recession (this 2009 article in the Whig says that retail sales that year will plunge 8.5%), that is even more reason for a distinct, proud and unique plan to be adopted by its’ people and politicians. Making money and retaining the unique charm of the neighbourhood should not be mutually exclusive.

The City of Kingston needs to know that there are plenty of visitors like me who see all these things.  What they don’t see is the plan for the future, nor what is considered important to the City Council and the downtown BIA.  They should tell us:  put up some signs, have a storefront that illustrates the new vision for downtown Kingston where visitors can see it.  Assure us that the Kingston we love(d) is not going to be lost. 

But I believe the historic, charming downtown Kingston might be in peril.  Our next long weekend holiday might be to Prince Edward County instead.

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