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The downtown: Has the new college helped? 0

By Ryan Paulsen, Daily Observer

It was after years of anticipation and a heaping helping of fanfare that the brand new waterfront campus of Algonquin College was finally completed and opened its doors to students, and it was seen by more than a few to be the herald of a new era for downtown Pembroke.

"We've definitely got high hopes for the new college," said Sachali Brunette, owner of the newly opened Sushi House, at the time. "We've been waiting for the new campus to open. Hopefully it'll replenish the downtown."

Similarly optimistic was Ghassan Ghanem, owner/operator of the Pembroke location of popular Lebanese restaurant, Madameek.

"I think it's gonna give a big push," he said. "One of our main reasons for opening in Pembroke was the college. I think it'll be good for all the area around here."

Now that a few months have passed, are business owners still hopeful that the new college presence will bolster the downtown's economic future? In a word, yes, though their initial exuberance has given way slightly to a more tempered long-term view of the future.

"I think that from the beginning everybody was really hopeful for it," says Brunette. "I don't believe that the impact was that grand. For some reason I was expecting a lot more of a change, but at the same time, the college students just came in, they all have rent to pay, they're all settling in to their new apartments. I think that it's mostly going to be an impact that we're going to see this summer."

For Ghanem, part of the problem may simply be that students attending the new campus aren't really aware of what downtown Pembroke has to offer.

"We were expecting more students," he says, "but this month we're going to have a tasting day at the college, because some of the students might not know what's going on downtown, and what options they have for restaurants."

He also shares Brunette's view that the impact of the college will be felt, but it won't be as immediate as he may have first hoped.

"I'm expecting more, but it's going to take a little bit of time. I think maybe give it until the spring time."

On the east end of the core, Janna Fortin, owner of Janna's Gallery Cafe, has always had a slightly more muted optimism when it comes to the impact of Renaissance Square.

Even in the heady days of the lead-up to the new campus's opening, she felt that the college would help the area simply by giving people a new sense of what downtown Pembroke stands for and contains, and will lead to more people concentrated downtown, which hopefully leads to more people shopping downtown.

"The nice thing about it," she said at the time, "is that, hopefully, it'll help the downtown build up because people will be downtown more. Even if they don't actually change where they shop, having more people downtown will hopefully help its image."

For Fortin, the outlook hasn't changed much.

"I still have the same basic view of having the college there," she says. "It's the perception. It's 'busy makes busy.'"

She does mention, however, that over the last few weeks, business has started to pick up in her cafe, and that part of that may be related to an already shifting perception of the main drag.

Nobody really expected the downtown to change dramatically overnight and return to its heyday, but even with the slightly understated initial impact of the campus, Algonquin College may yet prove, given time, to be just the ticket for a part of Pembroke that has been struggling for a long, long time.

Ryan Paulsen is a Daily Obsever multimedia journalist.

Twitter: @PRyanPaulsen

ryan.paulsen@sunmedia.ca

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