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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since the 1980’s I’ve been travelling into and hanging out on every “Main Street” I come across from one side of this vast land to the other. Then, I worked for the National Trust’s (then Heritage Canada Foundation) Main Street Canada initiative that was being implemented in over 100 towns and cities. That experience altered my life and perspective on communities forever.
In my ongoing work with the National Trust’s Main Street program, so much of what I do is seeking people out, hearing their stories and helping them understand what Main Street is about. Main Street is about more than buildings: it’s about people.