FOCUS: Newton BIA unveils an ambitious 20-year plan

BIA's 20-year strategy for embattled neighbourhood envisions area as being a cultural entertainment hub – complete with a WHL team.

The Newton Business Improvement Association has unveiled its 20-year vision for the area. Director Philip Aguirre hopes to see Newton's core become the entertainment and cultural district for the whole City of Surrey.

NEWTON — How do you fight for an area?

If you’re Newton BIA director Philip Aguirre, you start with a boat load of passion and make a whole lot of noise.

Step one? Come up with a long-term vision.

The Newton resident, who runs the Old Surrey Restaurant, has some big dreams for his beloved community.

“I’d love to see a cultural entertainment district for Surrey where the entire city comes to have their nightlife,” said Aguirre.

“It requires someone to have a plan. Right now, city hall has a plan of some townhomes there. I want more. We already have a lot of townhomes. We already have 146,000 people, we don’t need more.”

Aguirre sees the area from the Newton Wave Pool to the empty TransLink lot along the railway tracks to the retention pond as a “blank slate.”

“I always say we need a catalyst for Newton. No company is going to come in first and spend $100 million to be that catalyst, it just doesn’t make economic sense. But that’s what government is for – provincial, federal and civic government – to have that vision and make it happen and everything else can spring off that.”

That catalyst, according to Aguirre, should be a spectator arena with Surrey’s own WHL team.

“It would become a focal point for all of Surrey,” he said. “It becomes Surrey’s team, Surrey’s brand, from flags on our cars to tattoos on kids’ arms – an excitement of a Surrey-grown team that we can rally behind.”

But that’s just part of the BIA’s 20-year vision. It also includes a hotel, a convention and exhibition centre, an urban park and more.

Aguirre says he has crunched the numbers and, given Newton’s population of 146,000, if it was its own city, it would be the fifth largest city in the province, next to Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby and Richmond.

“But where’s the infrastructure?” he asked. “The tax base from Newton alone is massive, however, we’re not reinvesting that proportionally back into Newton… And as you see on the nightly news, we have issues.”

He’s calling for all levels of government need to put more direction of their platforms to Newton.

Ultimately, Aguirre wants to see a better long-term plan for the area.

“All that’s on the (city’s) OCP right now is some townhomes north of the retention pond. We have a large population in Newton already and it’s a commercial area. I need to see more than that – I need to see more depth.”

VOTE WAS TELLING

Aguirre said the way Newton voted in the 2014 civic election was telling.

Mayor Linda Hepner took the most votes in each and every town centre. But in Newton, the vote was the closest. She received 9,401 votes, edging out opponent Doug McCallum’s 9,300.

“Newton was the district that was most divided about the previous regime record. They weren’t so sure about the last four years,” he mused. “And we’re the largest voting block of all.”

With a vision solidified and the BIA behind it, Newton will now speak with one voice directly to city hall, he said.

“People ask me how I’m going to make it happen. We’re going to make it happen by creating this base. This community. We’re talking as one. We’re at one table and we’re creating what we want in Newton. Therefore we’re going to dictate what we want to city hall, to the province to the federal government. I call it the power base of Newton.”

A SHARED VISION

Mayor Linda Hepner said she hasn’t officially reviewed Aguirre’s plan, but in many ways, shares his vision as well.

In fact, she said the city has been working on a Newton Town Centre plan for more than a year. With public consultation already complete, she hopes it will come before city council before the year is out.

“I don’t think we’re far off the mark in terms of where Phillip’s comments are. The entertainment, I think it’s a shared vision, that we create a cultural corridor there and Newton is the prime spot for that.”

An urban park is in the city’s plan, she said.

“At the end or the LRT line, which terminates in Newton, having another urban park is exactly what we’ve got going forward in the plan. So we’re really connected there. And we’re really connected in terms of a cultural corridor.”

Hepner also said she wants to see more family housing in the short-term and higher densities in the longer term.

But what about the WHL?

She’s open to that.

“You know how strong a supporter I am of sports tourism, but we have recently gone out to the public to accept proposals for a spectator arena in Bridgeview.”

Those applications will likely be made public later in the fall, she added.

“We certainly have gone out already with that location (in Bridgeview) and we’ll be analyzing that, so I don’t know,” she continued. “It would have to be after the LRT line because what makes that location attractive is its easy access to SkyTrain and other areas. That currently doesn’t fit the Newton transportation options.”

EYESORE ISSUE

One eyesore that needs to be addressed is the Gateway Casino site that houses the Newton Bingo Hall, near the southwest corner of 72nd Avenue and King George Boulevard, Hepner said.

“It delivers a message that I don’t like to have delivered. It sends a signal that I don’t think is indicative of the kind of energy we’re trying to create around the Newton Town Centre.”

Hepner said it’s her belief that Gateway is more interested in selling that site.

“I’ve spoken to a couple investors who are interested in potentially taking that site. I don’t think Gateway will ultimately be the one that develops that,” she said.

But Aguirre isn’t so sure.

Under the terms of the controversial South Surrey casino proposal, which was shot down by Surrey council in a 4-5 vote in 2013, Gateway agreed to renovate the dilapidated Newton complex if its casino was not approved. But many of the storefronts sit vacant in the complex today, and Gateway hasn’t announced any plans.

“They’re going to wait because they can wait,” Aguirre said. “And they will wait until there’s somebody at city hall that’s more favourable to that decision.”

Gateway Casinos did not respond to the Now’s request for comment by press time.

In a nutshell, Aguirre likened his vision for Newton to a renovation.

“I have a heritage house, I have a heritage restaurant, so I look at Newton as just that. If we don’t do something soon, it won’t be renovation, it will be a gutting.”

amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com

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