Chilliwack ends its relationship with Walas Concepts

There was great optimism expressed when Walas Concepts was hired last spring to breathe new life into downtown revitalization.

There are several vacant buildings in downtown Chilliwack

There are several vacant buildings in downtown Chilliwack

Everyone says you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em and especially when to walk away.

Chilliwack is walking away from Walas Concepts.

There was great hope and optimism expressed when Walas Concepts was hired last spring to breathe new life into downtown revitalization.

The consulting firm created a plan based on a “business incubator” being set up in the downtown core to cut the number of vacant, and boarded-up storefronts with a surge of entrepreneurs.

The total spent before the Walas contract ended was about $65,000, with Walas staff having conducted research, and an inventory of unused buildings, as ground work for the incubator concept.

But after a six-month review of the contract between Walas and Chilliwack Economic Partners Corporation, the relationship between Walas and Chilliwack was terminated.

The decision last month by the CEPCO board was based on fiscal prudence.

“Sometimes we have to step off the traditional path and Walas was brought in to Chilliwack, based on the successes they had elsewhere in revitalizing large downtown spaces in other parts of world,” said CEPCO president Brian Coombes.

“We looked their six-month report findings and recommendations and felt their vision for proceeding did not justify the investment required from us, and we needed to make the decision to end the contract at this stage.”

City of Chilliwack and CEPCO had partnered on the project with the Dutch based firm, Walas Concepts. It would have meant an annual budget of $195,000.

“We felt at this time we could no longer justify the monthly investment,” said Coombes, which he said was about $10,000 a month.

The last day for Walas staff was on Jan. 16.

There were however “positive contributions” to come out of the experience, including a updated downtown inventory and an analysis of the downtown plans commissioned to date.

“It was made very clear people still have tremendous passion and emotional connections to the downtown. There are a lot of good people trying to make the downtown better.”

In the end there weren’t enough vacant buildings, which the entire plan was based on.

Mayor Sharon Gaetz said the contract was drafted with the condition built in that it could be ended at six-month intervals, if necessary.

“That was done to ensure we’d have some level of accountability,” she said.

Fiscal restraint and prudence were key considerations.

“We’re really careful with our money,” Gaetz said.

The Walas report in some ways confirmed what council already knew.

“They reaffirmed that a neighbourhood has to be built in the  downtown to attract more residents. We were hoping for fresh, new ideas. But they were not forthcoming.”

It’s not over. But it’s clear retail patterns are shifting, and city officials have been paying attention in terms of the future of Chilliwack’s downtown.

“But just because the contract ended, doesn’t mean we are giving up on the downtown,” said Gaetz. “We will do what we have to attract significant investment to our downtown, and continue to work closely with the BIA on this and other projects.”

In the end, the truly surprising finding was that the number of vacant buildings downtown was lower than they actually expected.

“There are fewer than we thought, and not as many out-of-town owners as we had imagined either.”

It was a valuable process in the end. The next stage will focus on a new marketing plan, and seeing what the private sector has to offer.

“We’ll take what we learned and move on from here,” Gaetz added.