By Dale Woodard on December 16, 2020.
After more than 20 years working to make downtown Lethbridge a unique spot for residents and visitors alike, Ted Stilson is stepping away.
The Downtown Lethbridge Business Revitalization Zone recently announced the retirement of Stilson as its executive director.
“I’m definitely excited about opening the next chapter and seeing what that will be,” said Stilson. “I have a lot of different interests, so I’m excited about exploring those. It has been a great experience working in the downtown core and contributing any way that I could.”
Stilson, whose last day is Friday, has helped guide the business community in downtown Lethbridge through a series of challenges.
The University of Lethbridge graduate who originally hails from Victoria, but grew up in Lethbridge, said downtown will continue to thrive after he steps down.
“Our downtown is the heart of our community and our heart of the city, but it is such an important place for us to preserve and to tell the story of our past,” said Stilson. “It was the retail hub of our community for a number of years and went through some down times, and over the last 20 years I think we have come a long way to revitalizing the downtown core.”
Stilson said there’s still plenty of work to do and feels revitalization will never completely be done, but noted some promising developments.
“Prior to COVID and the community drug crisis we had about 90 per cent store occupancy in the downtown core,” he said. “We have a lot more people living in the downtown core and we have some great developments happening with the Post Building and a lot more people living in, and coming to, the downtown core. It has been a journey and not without its challenges. The entrepreneurs and small-business owners that make up the downtown core have been committed.”
Stilson said a first-time visitor to downtown Lethbridge can experience a variety of interests.
“We have great locally owned-and-operated small businesses from retail to coffee shops to restaurants,” he said. “It has a unique character that is all its own. All of that is within a very historic downtown core with unique architecture. It tells a story of our community and tells where our community is at.”
The Lethbridge Main Street Project — which began in 2000 — was a key turning point for development and people taking interest in the downtown core, said Stilson.
“That was a partnership between the Alberta government, the City of Lethbridge and the BRZ. It started people investing in their buildings, and once that happened, we attracted more businesses and we attracted more property owners to invest in their buildings. We restored or renovated over 40 buildings in the downtown core through the Main Street Project matching grants and hundreds of signs in the downtown core.”
COVID-19 has made 2020 a tough year for businesses, but Stilson said downtown will rebound.
“We are absolutely going to pull through. I am extremely optimistic about the future of the downtown core. There is still a lot of investment and we’re watching what’s happening at the Post building and the Third Avenue construction. There is going to be some new development taking place on Festival Square and there’s still a lot of private and public investment in the downtown core. Our locally owned and operated business owners are very resilient and we will get through this.”
Stilson noted the people he’s worked alongside over the past 20 years to keep downtown thriving.
“I’ve made a lot of friends with business owners in the downtown core and a lot of acquaintances,” he said. “It’s been a great opportunity for me to meet some incredible people who I’ve worked with, not only in the business world, but also in government as well.”
Stephen Mogdan, on behalf of the Downtown BRZ board of directors, said Stilson’s retirement is well-deserved but will leave some very large shoes to fill.
“(Ted) has been, at once, the most ardent supporter of the downtown and an important critic, relentlessly seeking ways to improve the heart of our city,” said Mogdan. “By working with businesses and property owners on planning and development, his fingerprints are on almost every building in the downtown.
“Ted’s mark on Lethbridge is difficult to overestimate. Downtown Lethbridge has always faced headwinds — box stores, online shopping, substance-abuse crises, economic downturns, and more; the downtown has been very fortunate indeed to have had Ted helping chart a course through those storms.”
Now, Stilson gets ready to step aside and pursue outside interests.
“I think it was a Bob Dylan quote, that his definition of a successful man was you go to bed at night and get up in the morning and in between you do the things you love. I think that with sums it up. I’ll be able to have more time doing the things I love to do.”
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