Restoring the vibrancy of Greater Sudbury's urban core has been an all-consuming passion for Susan Thompson, managing director for the Downtown Village Development Corporation (DVDC).
The former residential real estate broker has been a leading advocate in championing the revival of the city's historic core that had fallen into a state of neglect by the late 1990s.
"I used to specialize in the creation of new neighbourhoods in the city where people wanted to live," said the Montrealborn Thompson, a global traveller who was mystified why Sudbury's downtown was doing so poorly.
Retailers and professional offices were pulling out, garbage littered the streets, and the entire area had taken on a colourless complexion with derelict buildings and empty storefronts.
"All I could see was this potential," she said. "There was nothing appealing to look like a place you wanted to be, to hang out and live."
More than a decade after the DVDC was established in 2003, the results are on display.
In negotiating on behalf of many private investors and developers, Thompson and the DVDC have facilitated the reinvestment of several million dollars into the core that's led to streetscaping initiatives, renovation of heritage buildings, and the attraction and retention of new eateries, nightclubs, boutiques, apparel shops, professional firms, and housing. A whole new vibe has taken over this year with a thriving sidewalk patio culture.
The group's ongoing commitment to restoring the area's lustre is evident in the building crane that's hovering over a second construction phase at Laurentian University's downtown architecture school.
"The School of Architecture has been a phenomenal shot in the arm," said Thompson, while sitting in a sidewalk café that sprang into existence soon after the program opened across the street.
And Thompson is working on various other projects that, she said, could potentially place "several hundred people" in the core.
The DVDC is a non-political, not-forprofit group that's a mix of influential property owners, business people and citizens at large, working in tandem with the local business improvement association and the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation.
Politicians and agendas may change at city hall, but the group's focus remains on downtown renewal through commercial and residential development.
"We really are the broker between the public and private sector," said Thompson.
In going public 11 years ago, her group discovered an undercurrent of support in the arts, cultural, and professional scenes that felt, as she did, that downtowns are "the living room of a community" and are an economic engine of growth.
In the beginning, there was "zero political will" at city hall to support any kind of urban renewal in the core. When Sudbury amalgamated its outlying communities in 2001, municipal priorities shifted to addressing civic discontent in those areas.
As a starter project, the DVDC worked with the business improvement association and shop owners to dress up a block of Durham Street with new benches, signage, bike racks, and decorative lighting that levered some money from the city.
A downtown master plan was finally adopted by city council in 2012, which Thompson calls a "wonderful blueprint for investment."
But she acknowledges there's much work to be done to engage the municipality in discussions to map out a menu of financial incentives that would truly open up the core to more business.
"Other cities have done it, but the challenge for us has always been the political will."