No longer looking like it belongs in a ghost town, Newmarket's historic Main Street is once again drawing road and foot traffic, and revived commercial success.
"There are about 9,000 cars going through Main Street a day since the grand reopening," says Peter Mertens, executive director of the Newmarket Downtown Development Committee (NDDC).
"That's an increase and an opportunity," adds Mertens, who is responsible for the $4-million revitalization program.
The NDDC was launched four years ago when Main Street was made an area of special consideration by the provincial government. At the time, many of the 60 storefronts were empty and it represented a shrinking tax base.
|Tyler Anderson, Business Edge|
|With 30 vacancies on Newmarket's Main Street a decade ago, Tamara Bolton set up her bookstore. Today, six shops are empty.|
Last October, Mertens stood in the rain with 1,000 people at the grand reopening party in the just-finished town square. Then he knew that the refurbishing of Main Street was on course.
Merchants are now eligible to apply for money to restore interior and exterior portions of their buildings within guidelines being developed by a newly formed heritage group. So far, nine merchants have applied for part of the annual incentives budget of $175,000.
Mayor Tom Taylor says the plan to recreate Main Street is gathering strength and speed. He's also excited about moving the district's second-oldest home to a new location just off Main Street from a nearby soccer park where it is sitting on cinderblocks. The plan is to turn it into a museum to cap off the recreation of old Main.
"There were 30 vacancies (on Main) when we came in '94," says Tamara Bolton, who owns Great Books on Main, a 6,000-sq.-ft. heritage property.
"The street was in poor shape and rents were rock bottom," she says. "There was nothing to lose and I was certain Main Street would get going in time."
It was a belief shared by Lisa Nicolaou who, nine years ago, opened Equinoxx, a high-end home accessories shop.
"Main Street looked like a ghost town, but I had a vision," says Nicolaou, who left her job as a manager at Holt Renfrew to set up Equinoxx. "I could see it.
"People told me I was crazy, but I knew if I built it, people would come. People started knocking on the windows to get a better look at the place," says Nicolaou, who is now hoping to expand into the empty storefront next door.
"I'm glad we did it," Bolton says. "I'm happy with our people, our wonderful customers. We know them by name because that small-town element is here."
As part of the revitalization, a parking lot off Main Street has been transformed into a square with water fountains, red brickwork and landscaping. When it is completed this spring it will be used for arts and cultural events.
Mertens says an architect specializing in heritage communities will oversee the revitalization and help plan a proposed boutique area in one of the parking lots adjoining Main Street.
There's a lot of history tucked into the 200-year-old neighbourhood. Most original buildings still stand, many looking the way they did in photos taken 120 years ago, although the former trading centre had fallen into disrepair over the past generation.
In 1926, Newmarket's population was 6,000, and by 1956 it had dropped to 3,000. Since then it has soared to 73,000, as suburbs and malls sprang up in available outlying lands.
That development didn't benefit Main Street, however.
When the Upper Canada Mall opened in 1974, about five kilometres from Main Street, it offered free parking and franchise shopping under one roof. It was expanded in 1989.
The Main Street Loblaws store, which had provided a busy focal point from the mid-'50s, closed its doors in the early '90s and other businesses followed suit. Today, the Newmarket Antiques Mall is in the old grocery store and draws customers and dealers from all over Ontario.
When the town received its special-interest designation, Mertens envisioned an outdoor mall, similar to Ottawa's Sparks Street.
He says foot traffic is coming back thanks to specialty boutiques that have set up shop, such as an all-hemp store, vintage clothing stores and food specialists.
"Ideally we want signature, boutique-style stores, no chains," Martens says. "And there'd be added value, like with a decorating store with seminars and classes to bring people in."
Bolton agrees: "There is a place for big-box stores, but people will get tired of that and want some place like Main."
The redevelopment was not without a few bumps in the road. A homeless shelter proposed for the old Hydro building at the foot of Main met with opposition. Another location has since been found.
And for much of last year Main Street was a construction zone as the sewers and water mains were replaced.
During the seven months of construction, merchants saw foot traffic nearly disappear and incomes drop 10 to 30 per cent, Bolton says. "It went on too long. It hurt a lot of people."
Mertens says it was short-term pain for long-term gain. "You can't have a new Main Street without the proper infrastructure."
Nicolaou also says business went down, but adds she got it back - plus 20 per cent - within three months of completion.
The final phase of construction will begin this year, although the targeted area is mostly residential.
Mertens envisions signature, quality businesses taking over storefronts. With incentives and the growing appeal of the street's appearance, only six stores remain empty.
"We need to make better use of the land, make public spaces, recreational spaces, make them available to the public and keep a real respect for the past," Mertens says. "We are going to make this happen."
(Anne Brodie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)