The layout of Little Current’s traditional downtown business area, as with most small towns, came about through circumstance rather than design.
When Manitoulin was opened up to non-Native settlement following the 1862 Manitoulin Treaty, the access to the Island was exclusively by water. (This was how Little Current, Manitowaning, Gore Bay, Kagawong, Meldrum Bay, Providence Bay and Michael’s Bay received their first generations of settlers, building supplies, commercial stock, livestock and all of the other pioneers’ needs).
Privately-owned business docks and their accompanying warehouses sprung up along the Little Current dock that today accommodates almost exclusively boaters cruising the North Channel and, in recent years, periodic visits from cruise ships that stop in Little Current as part of a Great Lakes itinerary.
The downtown business street that we see today grew up across from these private wharves and warehouses because, in the mid-19th century, no-one contemplated anything other than travel and the transfer of goods by ship.
By the 1930s, when the highway link was put through to Little Current, and thus Manitoulin, from Espanola, Little Current’s downtown had already been long defined by its early years as exclusively a port town.
And so it was that most important community institutions—the drug store, the hardware stores, grocery stores, banks, the lawyer’s office, the insurance office, the newspaper office, the Eaton’s order office, various general merchants and, most certainly, the post office—managed to fit into the two blocks that comprise downtown Little Current.
Today, the picture is somewhat different: there is no longer an Eaton’s order office in Little Current or anywhere else. The grocery store relocated to build a new, larger store on a larger lot in the town’s motel district. The last downtown hardware store closed about a decade ago and the town’s local hardware needs are met at the building supply store which is located mid-town (and which will eventually be moving to build a larger store on property on the southern edge of the community).
The downtown drug store closed almost two years ago leaving the town with a single pharmacy in the same uptown neighbourhood that houses the community’s two grocery stores, three motels and its late-night gasoline station.
In spite of this diaspora of businesses and services, the community’s natural downtown remains where it has always been: on the waterfront that defines this North Channel port town.
The importance of the port to the overall appeal of the North Channel as a yachting destination has certainly been recognized by the federal, provincial and northeast town municipal governments who have collectively spent nearly $10 million on its complete renewal over the past six years, not including all of the additional years spent studying and designing a refurbished port that will service boaters for decades to come.
Those years of study are important because consistent through the many changes and redesigns that went into the plan to rebuild the docks for the 21st century was the understanding that there would be a viable downtown community in place, exactly where it had always been, to provide the majority of the boaters’ needs when they tied up at the new docks.
The word “viable” is an important one just now in light of the fact that the building that houses the Canada Post Office in Little Current has for the past two decades been the property of the municipality.
A news story reported in this newspaper two weeks ago indicated that the town was negotiating a new lease with Canada Post, the tenant in part of its building, but that there was no guarantee that the negotiations would be successful in keeping the post office in its present location in the heart of Little Current’s downtown core.
The merchants in the downtown business area are rightly concerned about what the loss of this anchor establishment as an important part of their immediate community will mean to the downtown’s viability.
This is particularly a worry after the loss of another anchor business, the downtown pharmacy, that has had the effect, all the retailers have told this newspaper, of diminishing local traffic in the downtown and also to their businesses, particularly in the winter, spring and fall seasons.
They fear that moving the post office, an institution that brings everyone in town downtown at least every two days as citizens collect their mail, if it is moved to a destination away from its present one and out of the downtown core will see even fewer and fewer local people on the front street and dropping into their stores.
It may be small and it may be quaint, but because of the nature of the geography of Little Current, the original waterfront “downtown” is the only one Little Current has and is likely to ever have.
Past Northeast Town councils have recognized this and the Little Current Business Improvement Area (the BIA), the association representing the downtown businesses, was even asked to name a downtown businessperson to sit as part of the committee of council that established the terms of reference and the area of the community’s waterfront that was to be renewed. They chose the waterfront area bookended by Low Island Park at the west end and the swing bridge at the east end.
The results speak for themselves: steadily improving recreational facilities at Low Island Park, a “linear park” (a continuous waterfront walkway) connecting Low Island Park to the MTA’s information centre beside the swing bridge, a new 58 room hotel plus four suites under construction, state-of-the art dockage for yachters along a half-kilometre of sturdily rebuilt docks, finger docks to add to this capacity and a dock capable of accommodating the largest cruise ships, not to mention attractive awnings on the post office (and a clock tower there as well) together with a rebuilt heritage lighthouse and a series of interesting signs that tell the history of the downtown waterfront (and Low Island) from over a dozen vantage points.
The downtown business community, through its BIA representative on that original and vital committee that laid out in a broad-brush way the path that the redevelopment should follow, had real input into the waterfront renewal of which the community is now universally proud.
The downtown merchants, working with the town, made this happen. They also supported, through the BIA, the construction of the new hotel at a crucial time when the sale of municipal land for this purpose was not universally popular and was a political hot potato for the council of the day. They rarely say no to any request for material support of a community event or organization.
And all they want is for the town’s post office to remain where it is.
This is within the ability of those municipal representatives and officials charged with negotiating a deal with Canada Post to accomplish. There is no doubt about that.
It also makes sense to keep the downtown a viable place for business. There are some vacant storefronts but eventually others (just as the new Water Street Bakery and unique Kuku Hut have recently done) will also find this waterfront downtown an attractive place in which to do business.
The more attractive the downtown is to local people and tourists alike, the better reputation all of Little Current and the entire Town of Northeast Manitoulin and the Islands will have. Conversely, the less attractive the downtown, the less flattering this will be to the entire community.
The post office is an important anchor to an important part of the community, located just where it is.
Negotiations on the future location of this key element within the town must consider this as a very important factor in their deliberations with Canada Post.