BIZ X MAGAZINE: Festival Plaza Development and Completion

For November and December, the Rose Rose City Politics panel opines on the proposed redevelopment and completion of the riverfront festival plaza:

Finish the damn plaza.

For those who know me, it shouldn’t come as a surprise I support finishing festival plaza as presented, complete with translucent canopy and all.

My parents Sheryl Davies and John Liedtke were half of the original promoters of Bluesfest International and I grew up watching the festival and Windsor’s festival season grow from street festivals to the old casino onion-dome stage in a parking lot to the current unfinished cement slab we have today.

The plaza is a heatsink which makes it virtually impossible to use when the sun is directly overhead, and it’ll only get worse if summers continue getting hotter. Adding shade via a canopy, greenery, seating and perhaps a concession will provide year round access to what will arguably become one of the crown jewels of Windsor’s arts and culture offerings.

While the price is high, the unfinished site needs to be completed. It’s not a comparable expense to the aquatic centre as it’s not predicated on a dream to lure tourists via sports tourism; Windsor’s festival season already draws tourists and festival promoters and attendees deserve a completed site.

It’s unfortunate politics delayed the projected start date, and my hope is that initial work can begin to ensure inevitable completion. Allowing for festival plaza to remain a heatsink parking lot with a cement stage is half-assed and Windsorites deserve better.

And for those who point to the Jackson Park Band Shell as a more deserving project requiring investment, my response: why not both?

Jon Liedtke is a co-host and producer of Rose City Politics, a business consultant focusing on cannabis and marketing, an occasional reporter and writer, and a member of Windsor’s The Nefidovs.

The proposal to cover the Festival Plaza is a much needed project. Honestly, the fact that it was built on a swath of blacktop without any protection from the sun was a failure on the original development. That said, it should be included in a bigger picture plan for all the proposed development on the books in the downtown core. 

The Beacon projects, the central library (that just got $25,000,000 more expensive), the City Hall gateway project, and the list goes on. Having a broad strategy that could encompass the various plans would be better than one off planning for each project. In my opinion if you are going to do a canopy over Festival Plaza it would make sense to fully enclose the plaza so it could be used year round and possibly add market type retail stalls to have another destination option. 

I know Windsor is anti private development and business development to keep our waterfront “green”, but let’s not kid ourselves we have developed the waterfront. We have just focused on parking lots, entertainment plazas, and the worst waterfront restaurant design I have ever seen. Instead of developing it haphazardly, how about we do something that makes sense and get the best use and return on our $100,000,000 plus tax dollars for all the projects proposed? Or we can just fix mistakes again down the line.

Don Merrifield Jr. is a realtor serving Windsor Essex County for over 21 year, a co-host on Rose City Politics for over 10 years, a former professional musician, father and grandfather, and a former ward 3 city council candidate.

Mayor Dilkens’ advocacy for the $32.5 million canopy at Festival Plaza rests on the argument that Windsor should “dream big” and build an “iconic” feature on our waterfront. This argument raises important questions. What tangible benefits can the community expect as a result of this investment, and what opportunities for investment are we forgoing by prioritizing this one?

Municipal budgets are not infinite. The conceptual drawings of the canopy are impressive and it certainly would be an attractive amenity if built, but I can’t help feeling that we’ve seen this movie before. When the Aquatic Center opened in 2014, then-Councillor Dilkens argued that it raises the profile of the city and “helps in the job of economic development.” 

Seven years later, the Aquatic Center has cost the city millions in operating losses on top of it’s $77 million price tag. It’s hard to see how this facility has supported economic development in Windsor. The “Windsor Works” report on economic diversification released last spring cautioned against this type of investment, arguing that building amenities to attract tourists and residents often results in expensive white elephants that don’t do the job: “build it, and often they do not come.”

We should finish Festival Plaza, but the investment should be justified in terms of the tangible benefits it will bring to the community. A better riverfront venue will benefit Windsor, but I don’t see the evidence to support overinvestment here. Surely there are higher priorities for the City than another dubious bet on tourism.

Doug Sartori is a political observer and organizer. When he’s not recording podcasts or getting people out to vote he runs Parallel 42 Systems, a technology consultancy in downtown Windsor.

Festival Plaza is part of the priceless ribbon of parkland along our riverfront that extends from the Ambassador Bridge to Walkerville. I don’t think there is anyone, with even slight familiarity with the Plaza, that could seriously argue that it isn’t in need of attention and improvement. 

Any plan for the Plaza, however, must meet the needs of the organizations and community members who use the space, both now and in the future, and must be considered through the lenses of integration and complementarity. How the space can be used, by whom, and for what, are critical questions that must be asked and answered before considering the worthiness of any design plans for this public space. 

The redesign work for Festival Plaza began in 2013 and much has changed since then. Little stakeholder consultation has taken place since 2015. There are questions about linkages with other initiatives underway, including the Civic Esplanade project and the changes being considered for Riverside Drive. Moreover, the design proposal that was brought forward was not consistent with the City’s own bylaw and would necessitate a change in a hard-fought by-law regarding the riverfront. Add a price tag of $35 million and it is not hard to see how this is not something that should be added to a Council agenda and then rushed to a vote. 

I was pleased to see Council defer this matter, but I had expected that there would be language around stakeholder consultation in the interim. I am hopeful that this will nonetheless be undertaken lest I have to copy/paste this again here in the future. 

Pat Papadeas is a legal studies professor at St. Clair College and co-author of the textbook Canadian Business Law (Emond Publishing). She is active in organizations that directly or indirectly support a bold and vibrant downtown.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *