Big-box retail stores and urban business centres are draining the life out of many smaller town cores across southwestern Ontario, but some people are determined to reverse the trend.
Their response is Main Street Middlesex, the first county-wide main-street revitalization program in Canada.
Instead of focusing on one downtown, Main Street Middlesex is working in 10 communities, with populations ranging from 400 to 13,000, says general manager Cara Finn, who is based in Komoka, about five kilometres west of London.
"Most people care about a downtown when it's gone, and we're trying to be proactive in that respect," Finn says.
|Peter Tiahur, Business Edge|
|Tina Davey has taken advantage of the Main Street Middlesex program in Parkhill, which has helped businesses such as her Accentual Hair & Spa to take off.|
"Our community and Middlesex County were turning into suburbs of the City of London," she says. "A lot of people will obviously eat and get entertained and do their shopping while they can, which is during their lunch hour or after work in London."
Finn says the Middlesex program provides grants for such things as business signage and facade improvements.
In conjunction with London's Fanshawe College, it has also developed the accredited downtown revitalization certification program, which trains people to use the Main Street approach.
The Middlesex communities involved are Ailsa Craig, Delaware, Dorchester, Glencoe, Ilderton, Lucan, Mount Brydges, Newbury, Parkhill and Strathroy.
Finn is also general manager of the Community Futures Development Corp. (CFDC), a federally funded program sponsored by Industry Canada that provides loans as well as business- and job- creation programs. The Main Street program started last November as part of the CFDC.
The Main Street concept of historical downtown revitalization was developed in Washington, D.C., in 1980, Finn says. There are about 1,800 Main Street programs in North America, about 250 of these in Canada.
The non-profit Middlesex Main Street program received a total of $580,000 from Industry Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and the County of Middlesex.
The funding will cover the project from last November until late March 2007, after which point the group will look for ways to continue efforts in Middlesex and possibly expand into other counties in Ontario.
"For every dollar Main Street has given, it has leveraged over $2.25 from other sources," Finn says.
Each community has four representatives who work on design, economic restructuring, organization and promotion, says Finn, who was working for Main Street London when Middlesex County asked her to start the CFDC for the area. She adds that when she visited the communities to find out their needs and concerns, downtown revitalization was on top of every list.
|Peter Tiahur, Business Edg|
|Flowerpots give downtown Parkhill's main street a much more vibrant look.|
"Dead and blah," is how Tina Davey, owner of Accentual Hair & Spa described the look of downtown Parkhill before planter pots of flowers were added. Parkhill, which has a population of 1,675, is about 40 kilometres west of London.
"We can't believe the number of people commenting on how nice it looks - the flowerpots give things such life," says Davey, who is also a Parkhill Main Street committee member.
Davey, who spent $8,000 of her own money repairing her store facade and interior last year, says Main Street is a chance for the entire community to get excited about how their downtown looks.
Next year, the Parkhill committee plans to apply for Main Street funding for benches as well as money to create a town brochure, she says.
Davey adds that the town also is raising money on its own, including $427 from a recent dance.
In London, the Old East Village Business Improvement Association (BIA) is taking a different approach to revitalization.
The BIA, which covers the east side of London, acts as a subcommittee of the City of London. Among other things, that means "a city council member must be member of our board and we're audited by the city every year," says BIA chairman Phil Singeris.
The BIA originated more than 40 years ago as a fund'-raising group for Christmas decorations and enhancements.
Now it is trying to attract businesses to a part of London that has lost many merchants over the last 10 years, Singeris says.
"A small group of people wanted to get together and do something for the area, and to make a difference," Singeris says. "From there we've investigated and we've worked with city councillors."
Singeris says one of the group's accomplishments was convincing the Ontario Professional Planners Institute to use the village as a study area for a revitalization initiative. That resulted in more than $200,000 of free service consultation and a plan to re-establish value for the area.
The BIA also places a four-per-cent annual levy on property taxes, which provides $12,000 to $15,000 to spend on beautification on a consistent basis, Singeris says.
"But one of our biggest challenges is just helping property owners in upgrading and accessing the pool of funding," Singeris says.
"Property owners are afraid to spend money, thinking their taxes will go up ... we're working provincially and locally to try and access different pots of money, trying to jump-start investment in the area."
Lucan, a town of about 2,100 30 km north of London, is also a member of Main Street Middlesex. Mayor Tom McLaughlin says residents are excited about creating a better downtown. "We haven't had a Canada Day celebration here for some time and this year we tapped into some money ($1,100) for banners," says McLaughlin, who is also warden for Middlesex County.
"We get a lot of traffic through here on the way to Ailsa Craig and Parkhill - the more attractive it is, the more people are apt to stay and have lunch," McLaughlin says. "People are talking about it (revitalization) and that's good."
(Melanie Chambers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)