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TIFF's new Lightbox proves magnet for business

TIFF Bell Lightbox file photos, 350 King St. W. (September 02, 2010)

Photo by Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail Digital Image/Photo by Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail Digital Image

Camera flashes lit up Yorkville but the beeping of cash registers around the Toronto International Film Festival's new Bell Lightbox headquarters this year indicates future TIFF traffic will be heading south.

While movie stars and celebrity chasers stuck to their favourite uptown hotels and hot spots, debit and credit-card purchases made during TIFF show a shift in overall purchasing activity from Yorkville to a newly invigorated Entertainment District, site of more events and screenings this September.

Numbers obtained by The Globe and Mail from Moneris, a firm that processes plastic payments at restaurants and retailers, compared year-over-year transactions during the 10-day TIFF period for the past two years.

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Records from hundreds of merchants show that credit-card spending at restaurants and bars in the King West Entertainment District increased by 9.1 per cent during TIFF, with a corresponding drop in spending at Yorkville establishments of 5.2 per cent, says Moneris vice-president Santo Ligotti.

The ticker tape for specialty retail (including jewellery, cosmetics, spas, beauty salons, shoes and art galleries) showed a 13.3-per-cent increase at King West stores and a slight drop in Yorkville credit-card activity.

"The foot traffic did seem lighter," agrees Zoran Kocovski, owner of Sassafraz, a perennial go-to restaurant in TIFF's private and public Yorkville party scene.

Three kilometres south, bar staff were noticing movie-industry activity for the first time.

"There were lots of people wearing hats and huge, black-framed sunglasses talking movie deals into cellphones," says Jessica Embro of King Street's Jo Mama.

And there's a sense of hope on the street that the Lightbox's year-round presence will bring more activity and aplomb to an area that is without A-list retailers – the same way that an increasingly prominent TIFF burnished the once run-down Yorkville.

The $140-million glass and metal box rising steeply on the north side of King between John and Widmer streets houses five cinemas, two galleries, two restaurants, a lounge, library and archives, learning studios, a rooftop screening area and event space – all of which are designed to attract filmphiles through the year.

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Gallery attendant Daniel Galley says the Essential Cinema exhibit has remained nearly as busy as it was during the festival – and it's clearly people who have come to the area with film in mind.

"These people appreciate film as art," Mr. Galley says. "They stay right with me when I show them the camera that De Sica used to film Bicycle Thieves."

Janice Solomon thinks the corner of King and John is a natural home for the city's newest cultural institution. The executive director of the local Business Improvement Area points north up John Street toward the Art Gallery of Ontario at Dundas Street and rhymes off more than half a dozen attractions – ballet, opera, symphony, live theatre – within walking distance.

And then there's the coming transformation of John Street (an environmental assessment is under way). The proposed John Street Promenade promises to be a pedestrian-friendly cultural corridor that will cement the area's claim as artistic epicentre of the city.

What will make any comprehensive rejuvenation possible is the huge population increase coming to the area. With four condo towers of more than 30 storeys each and a handful of smaller developments all under construction, Ms. Solomon says the area will double its population in the next five years.

With the cash register credibility it brings with it, it may be that TIFF's new magnet for moviegoers will be arriving at just the right time to raise the curtain on a cultural rebirth.

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