Blog Post: Main Street Boost Diaries: Virden, MB

By Jim Mountain, Regeneration Associate, National Trust for Canada

When the National Trust comes to town for a Main Street Boost, expect the unexpected.

Prior to visiting Virden, I mapped out a schedule with our Manitoban contacts. It’s similar to the schedule I follow in other cities and towns. It included:

  • A walk-about assessment of the potential for the town of Virden;
  • A community open house;
  • Visits to the elementary and high schools; and
  • Interviews with local residents and business owners.

There’s a method to a Boost process – and people are at the heart of it. For this trip, I was accompanied by Heritage Building Conservation Officer for the Government of Saskatchewan Brant Hryhorczuk and Commemorations Assessment Historian for the Province of Manitoba Nicola Spasoff.

We also ask for the creation of a local leadership team. Virden’s team included Mayor Jeff McConnell, Town of Virden CAO Rhonda Stewart, and three other key players: Tiffany Cameron (Interim Economic Development Coordinator), Lance McLean (Virden and District Chamber of Commerce), Merv Jebb (local business owner), and Paula Brazil (Lions Club and RBC).

When I arrived on Tuesday, Oct. 24, Rhonda apologized. She explained that there was difficulty in finding Virden residents who wanted to be interviewed; that they weren’t quite sure what the National Trust really is. “It’s okay,” I assured her. “Let’s start the work and see what happens.” We talked with the local leadership team about the town’s recent fire, and their hopes for what our Boost project could get them started on.

Unofficial historian and town ambassador, Cal, with Jeff McConnell, Virden’s Mayor during the downtown tour.

We started the downtown tour with Cal, a retired teacher, unofficial historian, and town ambassador. For an hour, Cal walked us around and in the process, people started joining in: vehicles honked their horns in acknowledgement; people walking along stopped and got into the conversation; a Brandon Sun newspaper report joined in. Our leadership team of course was recognizable to all.

We stopped at the Virden Central Hotel across from the town’s train station. In the hotel’s restaurant hung large historic photos of the town’s past. During World War II it had been a Commonwealth Air Training base with pilots from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada training there. Here they are at the lunch counter in a photo I find quite poignant.

Pilots from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada eat at the Virden Central Hotel lunch counter. The pilots trained here during World War II.

The tour also included walking past areas of downtown ravaged by a recent series of fires. Three heritage buildings, including a two-storey brick building built in 1915 that formerly housed a school, were completely destroyed.

Our group’s conversation about the fires unearthed a lot of emotions but also segued into a discussion about Virden’s future. After all, it is a great downtown with so much potential.

From this point on, our schedule started to fill up. We had to update it three times! The word was out and the Town office started to receive calls for us to meet with residents.

Over the course of the next 48 hours, we met with junior high students whose ideas on how to revitalize the downtown were very relevant, and held an open house at the town’s hockey rink, where I brought the students’ ideas.

On Wednesday, the high school class hosted us, leading to a fun, but work-filled day. The ideas that came out of this diverse class – which included First Nations (Dakota Sioux), ranch and farm, and in-town students – gave us such a comprehensive picture of the various wants and needs of Virden youth.

Virden high school students brainstormed together on what could improve their downtown.

Thursday’s meetings were with local businesses owned by people who are passionate about their town and willing to roll up their sleeves.

The former Canadian Pacific Railway Station was restored and declared a heritage building in 1994.

We also met with a group who saved the town’s former Canadian Pacific Railway Station. In 1994, it was restored and declared a heritage building. It is now home to Virden and Area Arts Council, where they host art exhibits. It also houses a collection of thousands of items of vintage clothing collected by one resident, and which is now used by the local theatre groups.

Through our school visits, an open house, and interviews, some 125 dedicated and passionate residents got involved in the Virden Main Street Boost. It was about 45 hours of work across two and a half days, but a great example of how the National Trust can lift a community up and energize it.