The downtown Dartmouth shuffle

Major employers are leaving the downtown core all at once. They’ll soon be replaced, but can merchants survive the transition?

A series of real estate moves by private and public organizations will alter the downtown Dartmouth business landscape in the next year. What remains to be seen is whether these changes are more akin to a game of musical chairs or, to use a grimmer melodic analogy, Bob Marley's "Exodus."

The reshuffling has already begun. In late September, legal firm Boyne Clarke moved from Belmont House at Alderney and Ochterloney to new digs at Metropolitan Place, across from the Bridge Terminal. At the end of this month, the Halifax Regional School Board will vacate its Alderney Gate office, relocating 89 employees to a new office at Spectacle Lake near Burnside.

The longer-term forecast, meanwhile, includes the movement of Canadian Coast Guard employees currently working at Marine House on Portland Street to a new, $14.5-million headquarters at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in late 2011.

For the merchants in the downtown core, such moves mean saying goodbye to familiar customers---and uncertainty about if and when new faces will arrive.

"I am concerned, because after four or five o'clock, Portland Street is dead," says Jack Toulany, owner of Revana Pizza and its next- door neighbour, Whiskey's Lounge. "We need those businesses."

Toulany and his fellow downtown merchants can part with those businesses, provided new ones replace them. According to HRM and federal officials, that's exactly what's going to happen. Gloria McCluskey, councillor for downtown Dartmouth, says the city did not renew the school board's lease at Alderney Gate because it plans to use the space for its Dartmouth Heritage Museum. "It will bring more people downtown than the school board office ever brought," says McCluskey.

Likewise, Robert MacDonald, with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says Marine House won't be left empty with the departure of the Coast Guard. The DFO plans to consolidate employees under the Marine House roof.

While not exactly pleased with the Coast Guard's decision to move to Bedford---he believes a better home would be the King's Wharf development under construction at Dartmouth Cove---Tim Olive, executive director of the Downtown Dartmouth Business Commission, confirms MacDonald's projection. "The DDBC received a reply from the federal minister assuring us, in response to our enquiry, that any movement of personnel from Marine House would result in the backfilling of personnel in that federally owned building," Olive says via email.

John Young, managing partner at Boyne Clarke, still considers his business to be part of the downtown, although it resides outside the DDBC's boundaries for the neighbourhood. He also believes other tenants will eagerly snap up locations like the Belmont House, where his firm operated for 25 years.

"It's become a more attractive area for the private sector," says Young of downtown, adding that his staff will continue to visit their favourite haunts.

Small business owners like Dan Hamilton, proprietor of Hami's Cafe and Catering on Alderney Drive, are counting on it. "There are a few places moving but new people will come in," he says. "And people will come back, too, if it's a good shop or restaurant."

Vacated offices may well be repopulated and downtown Dartmouth could receive an influx of new residents and tourists. The issue for neighbourhood merchants is whether they can wait it out. That question becomes more difficult to answer whenever a major organization departs.

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