By Steve Hubrecht
A car-free, pedestrian-only main street in downtown Invermere could be a possibility this summer.
The idea generated considerable, and occasionally impassioned, discussion during last week’s Invermere committee of the whole meeting. Mayor Al Miller proposed turning 7th Avenue (Invermere’s main street) into a pedestrian corridor as a way to give more people room to move and be safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and as a way to help local businesses, which would be able to spill out onto a traffic-free main street. Miller added he thinks a pedestrian-only main street would generate quite a bit of buzz, and could become an attraction in its own right. He noted that other mountain communities — Banff and Nelson in particular — are doing the same thing this summer. “It will give people more room to socially distance,” he said, adding there would need to be discussion with the business community before going ahead with it.
The proposal sparked diverse reactions from other councillors, some in favour, some opposed and some expressing caution about what exactly the measure is intended for.
“I think it makes great sense,” said councillor Kayja Becker, pointing out that many of the shops on main street are so small that barely two customers are able to fit in them at once if proper social distancing protocols are being observed, and that if this is the case, a lineup of people may form outside popular shops on busy summer long weekend shopping days: something she opined that the district probably doesn’t want to see from a stopping-COVID-19 perspective. Allowing shops to spread out onto an empty main street would eliminate both those potential issues, she said.
Councillor Gerry Taft was steadfast in his opposition to the idea throughout the meeting. “I think it would be a big negative for the town (to fully block off traffic on main street),” he said. “It’s a terrible decision.” He said he thinks giving some businesses the flexibility to expand out onto the main street parking spaces directly in front of them would be a better option and added he is concerned that this idea is “top down” in that it is coming from council rather than coming from the main street business community. “We don’t have 20 businesses coming to us … we don’t have people asking for this,” said Taft. “We are leading this.”
Miller replied that it is “not a top-down approach,” and that his proposal was always to consult with main street businesses. He added it would be silly not to at least check with business owners here, given that the idea has been strongly embraced in Banff and Nelson.
“This is not a time to start an experiment on changing the downtown … there are (downtown) businesses on the edge,” shot back Taft, adding he’s heard reports of businesses struggling to pay rent and dealing with landlords unwilling to be flexible and pursue the COVID-19 subsidy. “To do some grand social experiment on closing the downtown, this is not the time to do it.”
Councillor Greg Anderson said that main street doesn’t have to be “all open” to traffic all the time, or “all closed” to traffic all the time. “Let’s look at different options,” said Anderson, adding he was unclear about whether the proposal was principally about dealing with COVID-19 or improving the downtown and increasing tourism, which he pointed out could exacerbate COVID-19. “To me, the motivation about this has to be about COVID and about safety … not bringing in thousands of people,” he said.
Taft piped up, stressing a point he’d hammered on at a previous meeting, that he feels Kinsmen Beach is a much bigger risk in terms of spreading COVID-19 than the downtown, adding he hopes district staff time is not being dedicated to canvassing the opinions of the main street business community about a pedestrian corridor on 7th Avenue at the expense of coming up with ways to maintain social distancing on Kinsmen Beach during busy summer days. “We need a plan to deal with 500 people on a crowded beach,” he said.
Acting chief administrative officer Kindry Luyendyk assured Taft that Kinsmen Beach is much more of a priority for district staff than closing traffic on 7th Avenue. The discussion ended with staff set to check with business owners about a traffic-free main street.
File photo from the 2019 Canada Day parade in Invermere