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Rediscover Canada’s Main Streets

Published: February 2012
Updated: January 2015

A typical historic main street is not just a remnant of the past, but "the heart and soul of our communities" that can be "vibrant hubs of commercial and cultural activity" as Main Street Saskatchewan points out.

Historic main streets are usually characterized by the following features: a row of two to four storey commercial buildings that contain ground floor businesses accessible via pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, with a mix of office and residential space on the upper floors. Historic storefronts tend to have large windows to display merchandise and triangular or rounded entrances that welcome shoppers into the store. If you walk along a healthy main street, not only will you notice an eclectic mix of businesses, but also many pedestrians interacting with each other, arts and cultural events occurring, and the frequent use of public transit. Numerous examples of vibrant and self-sustaining main streets are found throughout Canada.

Canadian Main Street Revitalization

Various main street programs have been in place in Canada for over 30 years, first inspired by the U.S. National Trust's Main Street program, and then influenced and supported by Heritage Canada Foundation's own Main Street program which lasted from 1979-1994.

Moose Jaw City Hall, Gov. of SK, 2004 / Hôtel de ville de Moose Jaw, gouv. du SK, 2004One of the more active programs in the country has been Main Street Saskatchewan. Operating since 1987, it has been providing funding to support local main street programs demonstrating that investing in historic main streets holds promising dividends. The revitalization of downtown Moose Jaw is one such success. Significant investments in retaining the original fabric of the historic downtown led to new business partnerships which reduced the vacancy rate for downtown storefront businesses by 50%.

Alberta's main street program has also met with success, particularly at Fort Macleod.  Before the main street program, the local arts community was active but fragmented. With the help of a main street coordinator, this community focussed its activities in downtown historic buildings, started a newsletter to reach out to nearby farming community, helped restore the historic Empress Theatre and launched a folk music festival in the process.

Québec's Rues principales Foundation has helped close to 300 communities since 1985. It is a not-for-profit organization that establishes service agreements with municipalities that help bring about sustainable development and revitalization. They have developed the "4 Aces Certificate for Sustainable and Concerted Development." To receive this award, a municipality must show that it supports local interest groups, has a vision of downtown revitalization that takes account of the area's history, heritage and culture, and promotes partnerships to encourage successful revitalization. Also, Rue Principales has established a network of "towns of excellence" and, in 2011 began a new program to recognize municipalities with either bronze, silver, or gold awards in order to foster new engagement in improving main streets.

Kingston's Main Street Renaissance

Over the past few years, the City of Kingston has been quietly re-occupying its historic downtown main streets. The city has been providing various awards and incentives to make its streets more attractive to investors and visitors. Heritage restoration is looked upon as a positive initiative that helps bring long-term economic stability and cultural vibrancy to the community.

To this end, there has been a growing buzz about the downtown area. At the same time as the "Occupy Wall Street" and "Re-Occupy Main Street" movements were building momentum in October and November 2011, Kingston's Frontenac Heritage Foundation was handing out awards of recognition to various owners, designers, and builders.

Prince George Hotel, Ministry of Culture, 2000 / Hôtel Prince George, Ministre de la culture, 2000Around the same time, the City of Kingston recognized the positive impact of various organisations with awards of excellence or merit under the Liveable City Design Awards. To this end, the firm Coulbourne and Kemble Architects won the Award of Merit for Context, Innovation, and Heritage Conservation for their restoration work of the upper floors of a Princess Street commercial building. A similar award was presented to Hughes Downey Architects, a firm that restored and redeveloped the upper floors of a previously fire-damaged building known as the Prince George Hotel. The Award of Excellence was given to Corush Sunderland Wright Limited for reconstructing and redesigning Princess Street to make it a more pedestrian-friendly place. Also worth noting is the Award of Excellence that went to upgrading nearby Market Square, a Heritage Conservation District.

In the November/December 2011 issue of Kingstonlife, the article "Keeping Up Appearances: What's Behind a Trend of Downtown Renovations?" asked various property owners and tenants of Kingston's Princess Street whether their restoration and renovation yielded any rewards. Their answers were enlightening. One owner noted that spending under $60,000 on restoration was "well worth it. It fulfills my heart. I like the character.  If you attempt to modernize a building, you can't recreate the beauty of the past. Show me a newer building that looks better. So why would you do anything but restore it to what it was?" Yet another owner explained that conserving heritage was a moral obligation to society, stating: "You owe it to the community and yourself to put these buildings back to their original splendour. There was a reason they were built that way. With ownership comes responsibility."

By investing in historic buildings, these property owners and business entrepreneurs show potential customers that they are around for the long term. The additional awards recognizing the improvements to various aspects of the streetscape are also having a domino effect, breathing new life into Kingston's historic downtown public spaces, and enabling Kingston's main street renaissance.

Bringing New Life to Historic Places Alberta Main Steet Program / programme Rues principales d'Alberta

Clearly, investing locally can produce considerable returns for a community! It is encouraging to see our country's enduring and iconic historic main streets given new life through a convergence of goals. Go out and rediscover Main Street for yourself!