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Last call for the Range?
Council approves purchase of 50 Street properties

Jack Danylchuk
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Six million is the magic number for downtown Yellowknife.

City administration thinks revenue from land sales will hit that mark this year, and council voted Monday to spend all of it on buying up the badly tarnished Gold Range strip.

Six million could also pay for most of the 24- to 48-unit housing project that is so far the only known feature in a development that seems destined to erase a colourful link with Yellowknife's storied past.

Unless businesses like the Gold Range Tavern, the Raven Pub and the Diner can find a place in the new vision for downtown, their days are numbered.

What that vision is won't be clear until a developer takes on the project.

"It's the most important thing we've done," Mayor Gord Van Tighem said Monday after councillors Cory Vanthuyne, Paul Falvo, Bob Brooks, Lydia Bardak, and Amanda Mallon approved second reading of bylaws that allow the purchase of three lots on the east end of the strip on 50 Street between Franklin and 51 Avenue.

Council also voted to continue negotiations with the owners of four remaining properties on 50 Street. As well, council is seeking to buy the vacant lot at Franklin Avenue and 50 Street with money from the sale of city land from owner Jack Walker, who earlier this year offered his downtown property for $1.6 million.

With those strokes, and a prophetic warning from a former mayor hanging over them, city council hopes to turn back a decade of decline on the strip, which made it the meanest street in the city, notorious for drunken violence and drug overdoses.

Deals for Instaloan, Corner Mart and the adjacent parking lot are almost complete, Van Tighem said Monday, and the purchase of the Gold Range, the Diner, Busy Bee Convenience Store and the Raven Pub may be close as well.

Jeff Humble, the city's director of planning and development, said the city is in discussion with federal agencies on partnering options for the proposed downtown housing project.

"If we can get that funding we can create a project that will entice a developer to take on the risk," said Humble. "This would provide significant redevelopment opportunities."

Former Yellowknife mayor Dave Lovell warned councillors against getting into the development business.

"There is a considerable feeling of deja vu, here," Lovell said at a committee meeting that preceded the special council session and public hearing.

"This whole discussion was held before I was in politics. What we got out of it was the Centre Square Mall. By the time I became mayor, it was not, 'how are we going to lose,' it was 'how do we cut our losses?'"

Lovell agrees with assembling property, "but I don't think council should ever be involved in developing it. Centre Square is not God's gift to the city, and it sure tainted my time in office. I think you're passing on a problem if you get into development, it's not going to work."

Councillors were impressed, but only Wind took Lovell's message to heart and voted against the land acquisition bylaws.

"We have some ideas for redevelopment, but we don't have costs for them, or any indication what's going to be built," said Wind, who was loudly applauded by a half-dozen supporters out of the dozen or so people in the public gallery at the time.

Wind was "disappointed at the lack of opportunity for residents to speak to the issue. Getting into land assembly is a major departure from what city has been doing. I don't think downtown problems will be solved by a housing development."

Bardak disagreed. Increasing the number of people living in the city core will draw businesses to serve them.

"This is very exciting and stimulating," said Bardak, but added she is concerned for the future of residents of the Gold Range Hotel and people who work on the strip.

Vanthuyne said downtown is "the heart of the city, and right now the heart does not appear to be pumping that well. The land deals alone will not solve the challenges, but we can't stand by and just watch it become depleted."

Brooks cautioned that "there is no silver bullet answer that is going to fix everything. This is merely one piece of a very large puzzle. It's just a start. We're assembling the land, there is a lot of work to be done."

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