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The Dining District is nice, good procedure is nicer

This week's Market Squared has issues with how this week's emergency meeting was handled, and also has some doubts about the future
20200910 downtown dining ts
Guelph's Downtown Dining District. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday file photo

After Monday’s vote to extend the Downtown Dining District, I decided to have a lunch time meal there on Tuesday to get a sense of this thing I was going to write about this week and two things were confirmed in my mind.

On the one hand, dining al fresco at a nice restaurant on a warm sunny day is still a special treat, and on the other hand I still seem to be as attractive to insects today as I was when I was a kid eating a hot dog at the Georgetown Fall Fair, which is not fun.

But this is not a food column, and I have to look at the politics of the situation, and the politics of Monday’s emergency meeting to save the dining district was, to coin a phrase, a disaster.

Not for the dining district of course, it got an extension to Nov. 30, but in terms of the mechanisms and procedures of city governance it could have been handled better.

For instance, I’m still not exactly clear on what happened. The dining district was supposed to be closed on Sept. 21 because the city needs to do work on that corner at Wyndham and Macdonell, but then staff were asked if the work could be postponed, or if they could work around the patios, and the answer seemed to be, “no problem.”

I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but the picture presented in the meeting was that clearing the basins, repainting some lines, and mending the sidewalks was urgent and complicated worked that turned out to be rather simple once you think about it.

I may be streamlining things, but part of the reason this went so far off track is that the deadline for the district was set and no one explained the rationale that went into setting the day. I’m grateful to councillor Mark MacKinnon for asking the question we all had about Monday’s meeting: Why the hell are we being forced to make this decision tonight?

Part of the problem with how this entire dining district situation was run is that so much authority was taken out of the council’s hands to begin with, albeit through their own directive to delegate its administration to staff. I understand the need to move quickly, but there was inevitably going to be a conflict about when and how it would end.

It should have been built in from the beginning for council to get regular updates along with all other COVID matters. If this was a question of helping businesses versus the need to complete city work, then council should have been given some kind of advanced warning as the ultimate arbiter that’s meant to balance the function of a corporation and the everyday needs of the people.

If the mayor is the CEO, and the council is a board of directors, then the people are the shareholders, and some of those shareholders wanted direction that the staff of the corporation didn’t want to take. This was not a situation for hands-off management.

But now that matters concerning the dining district have been settled (for now?), I’m still left with a couple of gnawing questions.

First, there were the numerous delegations about how the dining district is encouraging people to come downtown, and either leave their cars at home, or use one of the parking structures or lots and enjoy the walk into the district.

This flies in the face of everything we’ve been told about promoting business downtown the last several years. The story has been that we need the free on-street parking because people won’t pay for parking and walk. I could see if this is the first time that we’ve shut down the streets for an event downtown, but it’s not, so is it just the fatigue of COVID that has given us this new found appreciation for exercise?

The second thing is the assertion that people are prepared to dine outside in the winter. While it’s true that Canadians have traditionally been seen as a hearty people, it’s been my observation that this is a version of Canadiana that we’ve universally abandoned next to Red Ensign, Glass Tiger, and the Friendly Giant.

When I see Canadians on TV in the winter they are whiny, entitled, and embittered about dealing with even miniscule amounts of snow. We’re the people that invented remote controls for our cars so we can start the thing and warm it up before we have to get in it, and now I’m supposed to believe that we’re so outdoorsy that we’re going to have a burger and a brew in the pouring down snow because COVID?

It’s easy to enjoy the late September sun that makes you think for a minute that summer will never end and believe that when the cold November rain rolls around you’ll still be in love with eating outside. I hope that’s true, because we really bent over backwards this week to make that idea a reality.