On Canada Day or during the George Street Festival – when The Street is cordoned off and filled with regulars and people who’d normally never set foot on George – we start wondering why the stage is so under-used. Fair enough, every respectable city is an outdoor-friendly city. In fact, let’s think bigger: why is the street itself so underused?
All over the world, and even in Canadian cities like Montreal, we see retail shops and restaurants spilling their wares out onto the streets, where people browse bags and clothes, or sit sipping coffees and cocktails. Streets alive with commerce and entertainment; people buying snacks and earrings off tables, outside, under the summer sun, because why be indoors?
It seems like such a waste we have this totally European-style, foot-traffic-only street on George, and we’re never out on it drinking, socializing, shopping, and being entertained. Pedestrian streets are for pedestrians, so where is George Street’s seating-lined sidewalks for coffees and day pints? Where are the crafts people selling handmade soaps and jewelry, or the delicious food our city is now known for?
As it stands, George Street is just a place for the youth to puke their sugary drinks up on the way to a cab, and by day there’s only a few variations on the same kind of bar open, and the rest of the buildings are shuddered up.
Last year, Halifax made the call to turn Argyle Street into a pedestrian only street from Thursday to Sunday. It worked. Business is booming and people love a place to hang outdoors.
St. John’s would never get away with having Water Street follow suit – we love our cars and right to park them too much – but in George Street we have this pre-existing no-cars road, that was built to be a den of entertainment, just sitting there, waiting for a better vision to realize its full potential. (Not that some bar owners aren’t onto this: check out the deck on O’Reilly’s!)
For starters, George Street really could be a unique and esteemed venue. One that attracts all the right mid-level Canadian bands, hip ones and washing up ones alike, capable of selling out mid-sized venues. There’s also room there for exposing our amazing home-grown bands to wider local audiences. Not everyone wants to go to a small pub after midnight to hear what’s up and coming in St. John’s, but 8 pm on a sunny Saturday is a different story.
Local promoters and festivals constantly complain about our city’s serious lack of mid-sized music venues, and it limits who is able to come here to play. Bands from away can play at The Ship for 175 people or Mile One for 7,000, but opening up George Street for a concert series is a perfect balance between bar shows and stadium shows, and a way to totally rebrand The Street.
There are of course other outdoor possibilities too, like when the city screened the Tragically Hip’s last concert on the stage. And what about that epic Yoga Day when hundreds of yogis rolled their mats out, outside, as hometown heroes Green & Gold serenaded them from the stage? If you bill it, they will come.
According to the George Street Association itself, events like the George Street Festival pumps mad money into its bars. A vibrant George Street is good for local businesses: bars see thousands of patrons on any given night of The Festival, people are out eating in restaurants before and after, cabs can’t keep up, and the fine people of St. John’s ingest hundreds of thousands of dollars of booze and food in a night.
Yet, as it stands there are only three outdoor festivals happening on George Street every year: Canada’s BIG Birthday Bash (3 days around Canada Day), The George Street Festival (mid-summer), and George Street Mardi Gras (Halloween). All of which are big money makers. There is no real reason The Street couldn’t be overhauled and turned into an outdoor entertainment haven from May to October, for the benefit of businesses, locals, and tourists alike. The city is already gesturing to help.
Traditionally, The City of St. John’s charges the George Street Association $500 a day to use the stage during the George Street Festival. $500 is only 25 tickets if tickets are $20 each. Sure, What’s 25 tickets when you’re selling thousands a day, right? Well, it’s still $3,500 per George Street Festival. Throw in Canada’s Big Bash, and that’s $5000 extra the George Street Association could’ve made this year.
The money that could be saved if The City waived its stage rental fee is enough for The George Street Association to start rebranding George Street. Most of city council agree. This was the first year Council decided to wave the rental fee for the stage during the George Street Festival.
To quote Councillor Galgay, “George Street needs a considerable amount of work, we all recognize that.” He figures giving The Association long term ownership of the stage would allow The Association to spend stage-rental funds on beautification of The Street and its bars. If the street shut down Thursday through Sunday for a bi-monthly concert series May through August, and the city waved the rental fee, we’re talking a savings of $48,000 per season.
With that money, The Association could buy more, and, better quality screens to hang around the street. The money could also be used to address the complaints people have when the street is packed, like how long the lineups are to pee, and the amount of garbage on the street. Perhaps some money could be invested in outdoor washroom facilities and extra garbage bins.
The mayor, however, feels bar owners make enough off successful events and The Street ought to pay to rent the stage. It’s a shame, and not a very progressive view for the future of what used to be a unique landmark of the city.
Before we can move towards a new vision for George Street and ponder the right leadership to guide it, we have to accept the time for change has come, and what George Street is now isn’t, in the eyes of the majority, as great a thing as it could be.
This summer, The Monocle, a prestigious international magazine out of London wrote a 5-page piece on St. John’s as a travel destination. In that article, they praised the city, but warned people to, “avoid George Street. It claims to have more bars than any other street in North America, but this is not a claim to be proud of – the bars are awful.”
They’re not all awful, and some of the spots that are awful hold a special place in our hearts that that magazine wouldn’t get – who hasn’t had a good laugh at Lottie’s, and every cultural hub needs a ridiculous karaoke outfit.
But the rejuvenation of George Street could allow property owners to reconsider their space: maybe it needn’t be all bars. Some diversification of what’s on the street would be great. Places like The Loose Tie are seeing potential in filling unfilled niches on the Street, so kudos to the owners of Greensleeves for turning their upstairs into a reprieve for small plates and proper cocktails on George.
We need more of that. Give us another brewpub now, give us a nice spot to eat non-pubfare outside, hell: look into lining the sidewalks with vendors on the weekends, market style? There’s no shortage of talented locals selling wonderful things. Give us a reason to be outside, buying local. Give us something other than a spot known for debauchery and dirty deeds by night, and being a relative ghost town by day.