Blog Post: Why Main Streets are Important

By Jim Mountain, Regeneration Associate, National Trust for Canada

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.

Since 2014, and back with the National Trust, I am an admitted “Main Street” geek. When travelling – whether for work or pleasure – I find myself inevitably veering away from the major highways and drawn magnetically into the physical core of each community.

Once past the inevitable edge of town fast food and box chain stores, I find joy in becoming immersed in the place, in looking up and around at the range and state of the downtown’s architecture and textural patina – to get a feel for that town’s past and a sense of where it is going to. I intuitively gauge the “health” of the street by mentally checking off storefront and upper floor vacancies, the mix of businesses and services, and whether key anchors like banks, food stores, civic buildings, a theatre perhaps, may still even be in the downtown.

I get onto the street and meet people. I listen to their stories and their thoughts – people of all background, ages and outlooks. Everyone has a strong and varied opinion. It could be a nostalgic memory that downtown used to be “the place” to be – especially on a Saturday night when the movie theatre patrons would empty onto the street after a feature show and stores and restaurants would stay open until late into the night. It could be a younger person’s view that the downtown needs more – more cultural activities, or to be more bike or skateboard friendly, and with businesses that cater to that demographic. It could be an older person who talks about making sidewalks and stores more accessible and navigable.

Each of these exchanges reinforce again and again that local people feel their downtown’s are still important to them. They want their main commercial streets to be resilient, vibrant, safe and a source of local pride. How to achieve this, though is a key question.

Thankfully, there is a body of experience, knowledge and tools to draw from.

Canada’s National Trust and its U.S counterpart, the National Trust For Historic Preservation have invested heavily in partnering with provincial, state and local governments to implement the Main Street Approach – a set of coordinated strategies which have shown to be effective in regenerating a downtown’s economic, social and cultural base.

Currently the Ontario BIA Association representing some 300 Ontario BIA’s housing over 60,000 businesses, are, with funding from Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs undertaking a major “Return On Investment” study that will quantify and measure statistically, the importance of downtown’s.

The Province of Saskatchewan’s Main Street program, through its Parks, Culture and Sport ministry has since 2011 enabled 21 communities to implement the National Trust’s trademarked Main Street Approach. Saskatchewan’s program has stimulated “56 business openings, $6 million spent on building rehabilitation and streets cape improvements, $7.6 million in private investment, as well as 330 Main Street events with more than 41,000 hours of volunteer time being generated.” Learn more here.

The National Trust’s Main Street Boost projects in summer of 2016 in Invermere and Nakusp B.C and Carleton Place Ontario offer further tangible examples. This new Trust initiative (in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Architecture, Columbia Basin Trust and Carleton Place BIA) had strong community participation in identifying achievable projects that would make a difference. Turnouts to community meetings were strong. Elementary and high school classes got involved. Projects enhancing downtown’s physical image were recommended, digital “Apps” for Nakusp and Invermere were created, and conceptual designs and conservation strategies for 12 downtown heritage buildings in Carleton Place were produced.

Communities who believe that their downtown’s are important take action. They know that change is Inevitable and by working hard together, and being open to creative ideas the downtown’s built by generations before us, can indeed be viable for generations to come.