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Mayor Dilkens and the Distillery District

Mayor Drew Dilkens Has Tiger By The Tail In Dishing Districting Spoils

Photo: Walkerville BIA Chair Cara Kennedy, with her sons and business partners Ben (left) and Austin. Photo courtesy of The Walkerville Tavern.

Mayor Dilkens Has Tiger By The Tail In Dishing Districting Spoils

By Alan Halberstadt

It’s unfortunate that Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens’ good idea of establishing a Distillery Districtas a section of the Walkerville Business Improvement Association (BIA) has been tainted by City Hall’s shoddy treatment of a neighbouring BIA.

Timing is everything, and in this case the timing couldn’t be worse. Dilkens rolled out his idea of districting when he had City Council set aside $5.25 million in the 2018 Enhanced Capital Budget in mid-January. Walkerville was named as one of six beneficiaries of the Mayor’s commercial district theme plan, along with Downtown, Sandwich, Riverside, Ford City and the Asian sector of Wyandotte Street West.

Dilkens declared that Walkerville would be first in line when he showcased fancy drawings by Archon Architects at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Walkerville BIA on January 30.

All well and good, until the fateful Council meeting of March 5, when seven Councillors, including Dilkens, pulled the rug out from under the $1.4 million streetscaping plan of the Wyandotte Town Centre BIA.

Dilkens and company, who had approved of the Town Centre plan a year earlier, suddenly decided they didn’t like the World Marketplace theme or the first phase of the project, colourful overhead streamers which were dissed as amateurish.

Council was roundly roasted for sticking the matter on the agenda without proper notice to the Chair of the BIA Board Tamara Kowalska, presumably because CAO Onorio Colucci urgently wanted Council’s direction on how the Town Centre plan squared, or apparently didn’t, with the Mayor’s new districting brainchild.

The optics were atrocious and set off a social media frenzy accusing the city of kicking a poor multi-cultural cousin to the curb while pouring more riches into the “uppity” Walkerville business district it shares a border with — Gladstone Avenue.

Ironically, the Dilkens plan for Walkerville has some clever elements. Forewarned that past suggestions to rebrand Walkerville the Distillery District met with hostile pushback from the BIA membership, the South Windsor resident shrunk the plan to include only Devonshire and Argyle Roads in the far east corner of the six block BIA.

The idea of a district within a district, highlighting the rich heritage of Hiram Walker’s whisky empire, struck a responsive chord with the BIA leadership.

We’re very much in favour of it,” says Walkerville BIA Chair Cara Kennedy. “It can only enhance the area, bringing in more foot traffic, bike traffic and car traffic. We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we will still be Walkerville.”

I think it’s a great idea . . . it’s long overdue,” enthuses Mike Brkovich, Owner of Walkerville Brewery, first opened by Hiram in 1890.

The Mayor made a commitment to see the project through at the AGM said Kennedy, who had previously been invited to see an eight foot plus statue of Hiram Walker nearing completion by local artist Mark Williams for a reported $400,000. Dilkens has trumpeted the idea of putting the statue in the controversial $1 million roundabout which will dead end Devonshire at Riverside Drive.

If city engineers decide it’s not a good fit there, it would be displayed in a parkette at the intersection of Riverside.

The slides Dilkens showed at the AGM included overhead ornamental lighting, “Walkerville Distillery Districtwelcoming signs, tree planting, a pedestrian walkway over Riverside Drive, a pathway between the two blocks and painting the street in front of the brewery in an argyle pattern.

It’s not set in stone . . . I’m sure it would be done in phases because it would be a lot of money,” says Kennedy, Owner of The Walkerville Tavern who became BIA Chair in January of 2017.

Kennedy and her board are moving forward with an ambitious plan to greatly expand the BIA. The new boundaries would capture J.P. Wiser’s, North America’s largest distillery, on the north side of Riverside Drive, and the Children’s Aid Society, on the south side. Both these entities approached the BIA seeking membership.

The dormant Canadian Club Brand Centre, which Kennedy reports will soon be occupied by the offices of Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island (TWEPI), is also included. Although the boundary expansion initiative was unrelated to the Mayor’s districting idea, overlapping would occur if everything comes to fruition.

Brkovich believes the city and BIA need to capitalize on the Hiram Walker legacy carried on by his brewery and Wiser’s thriving business, which employs 300 people and distills and bottles international brands including rum, vodka and liqueurs as well as Canadian whisky.

Wiser’s recently launched its own Hiram Walker and Sons brand centre, hosting public tours demonstrating its grain to glass process, weddings and other public events.

The brewery also runs successful tours where Brkovich regularly encounters Michigan and Ohio visitors who know more about what this historic district offers than many Windsorites do. It has untapped potential as a destination attraction, he says, which will see tourists spill off into the Walkerville business district.

Kennedy says city planners are receptive to expanding the BIA boundaries south on Walker Road to Richmond Street, and west from there to Gladstone. This would add about a dozen dues-paying members to the 98 existing basket. The newcomers would include: Walkerville Eatery, The City Market, The Party Warehouse, Walkerville Bed and Breakfast, Clearwater Animal Clinic and a new transportation parts business occupying the old fire hall.

This is a growing community,” says Kennedy, a down-to-earth dynamo who wants to dispel the perception that Walkerville gets everything at the expense of its neighbour.

We fully support the Wyandotte Town Centre BIA, 100 percent,” she says, noting that Council left $1 million as a budget placeholder for Town Centre’s use some unknown time in the future.

Streetscaping is going to do wonders for that neighbourhood, for all of us,” Kennedy emphasizes. “Anything (city) administration can do to help them will only enhance the area. Wyandotte Street is a vital commercial artery. I would hope they do get their funding.”

With the October municipal election fast approaching, the ticklish question for Dilkens and Council will be who gets how much and when.