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Rebuilding downtown will take 'imagination'
Imagine Chilliwack's downtown being brought back to life.
Reps from Walas Concepts have been actively meeting and talking to locals in the past month.
"We believe cities are about people, not buildings," said Walas CEO Gerben van Straaten at the Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Coast Chilliwack Hotel Thursday.
When some look at the downtown, all they see are boarded up storefronts. But van Straaten sees more. He sees pure potential.
It's early in the project, so they haven't come up with any solutions for Chilliwack's downtown quite yet, as "that would be an insult," he explained.
But Walas has a proven track record of helping struggling cities and downtowns all over the world.
Their idea is to redevelop empty commercial spaces in Chilliwack by repurposing them, and breathing life into them in creative ways.
"I really love the urban environment," said van Straaten. "That's where you find all of the problems and all of the solutions."
The solutions are not found by thinking outside the box, but by throwing the box away entirely, he said.
The built environment becomes more sustainable, and mentors and partnerships are key elements in the Walas model.
The Walas CEO has a background in Holland as a lawyer, economist and philosopher, with ample experience in project management. Walas Concepts is a rapidly growing Dutch based company that was started in Rotterdam with offices in Vancouver as well.
He told the crowd he met urbanist innovator Jane Jacobs in the 1990s and was very influenced by her thinking.
"Jane Jacobs said that 'Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.'
"But I would add that it will also take everyone who lives here to get involved.
"Cities have the capacity to provide something for everybody only because, and only when they are created for everybody."
Walas has a very inclusive, holistic and accessible way of looking at things.
"We cover a lot of disciplines but we're not magicians," he said. "We need everyone to pull together to make the changes."
It's a new way of looking at mixed use.
"Reactivating the downtown core, with all the initiatives imaginable are blended together in one business model."
Part of the idea is generating local entrepreneurs, urban farmers and business startups, and even getting the education sector involved.
"One year from now everyone will believe in their downtown," van Straaten boldly predicted.
City council approved $65,000 in CDI funding in March for the Walas proposal, which would have a $195,000 annual budget to concentrate on business development and attraction in the downtown, as well as boosting commercial occupancy.
The Walas CEO had a closing message for Chilliwack:
"Anyone who wants to do anything in the downtown, come talk to me."
See more at www.walasconcepts.com.