Publication: The Main Street Miracle
The Main Street Miracle
How to bring dying downtowns to life
The Revitalized Downtown of Ladysmith, British Columbia
A remarkable revolution is taking place in downtowns from one end
of Canada to the other. In Fort Macleod, Alta., a revitalized centre
town attracts unprecedented numbers of tourists. In Shediac, N.B.,
new businesses open and sales receipts go up. In St. John's, Nfld.,
historic buildings are brought back to life. In Cambridge, Ont.,
the number of downtown jobs skyrockets. In Matane, Que., membership
in the local business association jumps by 30%.
Success stories such as these are part of a remarkable turn-around
enjoyed by scores of Canadian communities over the past few years.
These successes are particularly noteworthy because they were accomplished
in the face of a contradictory trend that has spelled long-time
woe for many downtowns.
Downtown's troubles date to the late 1940s when Canadian communities
suffered a nationwide building shortage. The shortage was caused
in part by a two-decade-long construction slow-down (in the '30s,
the Depression all but halted the building industry and in the early
'40s resources were directed to the war effort). The shortage was
exacerbated in the late '40s by a burgeoning population: the start
of the baby boom and the arrival of three million immigrants from
war torn Europe.
To encourage building, the federal government joined forces with
the construction industry and undertook the single most ambitious
development program in the nation's history. The result was the
suburbs. And soon, the suburbs created their own shopping venues,
the malls and shopping strips. The new housing tracts provided first
time homes for millions of Canadians but there was a downside, as
well. The suburbs drew population away from the established neighborhoods
and the malls and strips attracted 50% of the retail dollar. Over
the years, this competition devastated downtowns. Sales plummeted.
Vacancies rose. There was unemployment, buildings became dilapidated,
Various initiatives were undertaken to revitalize the traditional
hearts of our communities, notably the urban renewal efforts of
the 1960s and the beautification schemes of the '70s. For the most
part, these efforts failed. In 1979, Heritage Canada launched a
program called Main Street Canada and developed it on the premise
that downtowns are complex entities: to prosper they must develop
both economically and environmentally. The program's strategy was
based loosely upon the approach the rival shopping centres used:
open an office in the heart of the shopping district; install a
coordinator who lives and works in the community; operate a program
based on the four-point approach of organization, design improvement,
economic development, and marketing. There were important ways in
which the program differed from the shopping centres: its approach
was incremental, emphasized widespread local participation, developed
local resources, and promoted the local communal identity.
The Main Street Canada strategy was tried experimentally in 10
communities: St. John's, Nfld., Bridgetown and Windsor, N.S., St-Jean-sur-Richelieu
and Ste-Marie de Beauce, Que., Perth and Cambridge, Ont., Moose
Jaw, Sask., Fort Macleod, Alta., and Nelson, B.C. Each community
enjoyed a remarkable environmental and economic turnaround. Based
on their success, the Department of Industry, Science and Technology
(then DRIE) in 1985 contributed $5 million to help Main Street take
its program to 70 communities by 1991. In the following years, more
extraordinary successes were achieved. Two examples:
- CARBONEAR. Five years ago, Carbonear was in trouble. The picturesque
out port on Newfoundland's Conception Bay had an unemployment
rate that, thanks to the closing of a nearby fishery, nudged 40%.
The downtown was devastated: almost half its buildings were vacant.
Then Carbonear (pop. 5,000) invited Heritage Canada's Main Street
program to town. A Main Street office was established on Water
Street and a coordinator, Jerry Dick, was hired. A market survey
identified new investment opportunities. A tax incentive encouraged
new businesses to locate in the core. A community market and artisans'
incubator were launched. Tourism was emphasized. Promotions such
as the annual Stationers Festival were linked to local traditions.
In just over two years there was a net increase of nine new businesses.
The vacancy rate was reduced by 17%. Thirty jobs were created
through business starts. About 4,000 people attended local festivals.
Ten major building renovations were undertaken, representing a
quarter million investment -- a sum that matched the previous
10-year financial input.
- LADYSMITH. This Vancouver Island community (pop. 4,400) was
also in trouble in the mid-1980s. Its main source of employment
was a lumber company that closed thanks to the early '80s recession.
To make matters worse, half of the town's retail dollars were
being attracted away by shopping malls in nearby Nanaimo. In the
mid-'80s, Ladysmith jumped on the Main Street bandwagon. In addition,
the town tapped private and public funding sources including the
provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs' Downtown Revitalization
Program and the Heritage Area Revitalization Program of the Ministry
of Tourism, Recreation and Culture. An office was opened and Elizabeth
Low was named coordinator. As elsewhere, the Main Street approach
here emphasized the development of local heritage resources, the
collaborative management of the downtown, and aggressive marketing.
The Downtown Merchants Association was established in 1986 to
promote and market downtown. Emphasis was placed on regaining
local retail dollars and on attracting tourists. The most visible
change in Ladysmith is the face-lift on First Avenue: a new civic
square was created; a streetscape plan was implemented; and renovations
by owners were carried out on a large percentage of downtown buildings.
The physical renaissance reflected a business rebirth. Since the
beginning of revitalization, vacancies have been reduced to nil,
21 shops have opened, and most owners of established stores have
reported an upswing in business some as much as 20% in one year.
In these two communities and in scores of others, the Main Street
Canada program has helped improve downtown's attractiveness, quality
of life, commercial viability, and sense of identity. Seen in its
entirety, the program's first decade is chalking up some astonishing
statistics. Based on just $5 million federal seed money, the program
will create in 10 years no fewer than 6,000 jobs, 1,500 business
starts, 700 major building renovations, and generate $90 million
in private sector investment.
There is clearly a need for the program. Almost all the 71 original
Main Street communities back it. Just listen to a few of hundreds
of endorsements: "There is no question about the value of Main
Street. Support in our community is unanimous," says Mayor
PierreMaurice Vachon, of Ste-Marie de Beauce, Que. "Some kind
of fire has been lit under the owners of businesses on Water Street,"
writes columnist Ken Maher of Carbonear's "The Compass."
"The project has been most beneficial to our city and we would
like to see it continue," reports Mayor K.R. Burgess of Brandon,
Man. "Revitalization by preservation has been implemented with
remarkable success," says Mayor J. Roy McIssac of Bridgetown,
The renewal rate for the program once Heritage Canada officially
withdraws from a community after three years is 97%. In addition,
there are more than 400 communities, which have shown interest in
joining the program. "In spite of its success," says Main
Street's director, Gordon Fulton, "the program nears extinction.
The federal seed money runs out soon and this means that Main Street
is about to pull back on its services." Indeed, if new funds
are not received this year from the federal government, the body
of expertise the program has developed over the past decade will
"We still have the expertise, the human resources, and the
tools to take our approach to all parts of the country," says
François LeBlanc, vice president in charge of Heritage Canada's
Demonstration Department, "but we do not have the financial
resources to meet the demand. We've made a strong case for the federal
government to continue playing a role. If it provides us with an
increase to our endowment we can take this most successful program
to hundreds more communities across Canada."