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Monique Keiran: Downtown is a living, evolving entity

I have little need for T-shirts, caps or jackets emblazoned with our capital’s name. I don’t bother with coasters, tea cozies or trinkets to remind me of my day-to-day existence here.

I have little need for T-shirts, caps or jackets emblazoned with our capital’s name. I don’t bother with coasters, tea cozies or trinkets to remind me of my day-to-day existence here.

When I can step out my door to live the dream, I rarely think of shops that sell souvenirs to people who visit and want reminders of their brief time here.

I’m not the intended market.

However, a market clearly exists to keep the souvenir-type shops along Government Street in business, year after year.

They comprise about a dozen of the 50 or so shops along the eight blocks between Humboldt and Fisgard streets.

This stretch of Government Street has been in the news lately, after Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps suggested lowering commercial property taxes along the street to encourage revitalization.

The number of empty storefronts and “for rent” signs — 13 blackened storefronts at recent count — prompted her proposal.

Yet, while shops catering mostly to tourists are a minority along that stretch, their presence greatly influences the street’s informal, local brand. When many local residents think of Government Street, it is often these shops that come to mind — and long lines of idling tour buses, sidewalk-clogging crowds and phalanxes of kamikaze scooters.

With luck, they also recall other businesses along Government Street — the ones that have crafted their presence to appeal year-round to residents, as well as to visitors. There are the fancy linens shop and the sweater shop, the pubs, the tea room and the department store. And don’t forget the bookstore.

“Right. Let’s make sure aunt Trudy and cousin Tim go there when they come to town this year,” the locals might say, while promising themselves a visit at a quieter time of year.

It’s easier to find parking, walk down the street, get a table and breathe on Government Street from October to tulip season.

But it’s also at this time of year when dark storefronts seem to darken more. The absence of afternoon hurley-burley becomes pronounced when a cold wind blows off the harbour. A general malaise can set in.

Pessimists read about Victoria being the second most unaffordable city in Canada.

They might consider the relatively low wages of the area’s abundant service sector, the ongoing hiring freeze by one of the region’s largest, better-paying employers, the previous years’ slump in property values — just now turning around — and feel a wintry fog of gloom descend.

Those feelings might, in fact, be part of living in B.C. According to the 2015 B.C. Business/Insights West survey, one in four Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland residents view their economic outlook this year as stagnant or worsening.

This compares to 34 per cent of British Columbians living away from the south coast who forecast tight belts and reduced opportunity this year.

Of course, the flip side of that is that more than 60 per cent of British Columbians report feeling hopeful about their coming prospects.

Perception is subjective. It depends on one’s own experiences and situation. Just as a resident’s perception of Government Street mostly serving tourists is based on that person’s own frustrating height-of-summer experiences of trying to dodge tourists, the reality is more nuanced and complex.

This is not to say that the province’s pessimists might not have reason to be cautious. And it’s not to say that Government Street faces no challenges.

But cities and their downtown areas, like social communities, are living, evolving entities. Good times come, pass and, we hope, return. Businesses open and close. Rents rise and occasionally fall.

For many years, Government Street was a downtown destination. While it’s unrealistic to expect such good fortune to hold indefinitely, there’s no reason to believe the current dip in prosperity will last forever.

Some focused, critical thinking, some creative problem-solving, and some additional care and attention might help to renew the street’s common vision and remake its brand.

As other downtown areas have demonstrated in recent years, a stretch of curbside real estate can successfully re-create and re-present itself in the perceptions of year-round residents while attracting new regulars and the passing tourist trade.

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