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Some tips on
Living Simply

Bustling Main Street

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By Pat Mestern
May 15, 2007 

A number of readers have asked if I'd pen another article that would focus on main
streets - old and new. I'm happy to do so and will bring readers right up to date on a situation that plagues a lot of heritage communities today.

Before the advent of fringe development, main streets across Ontario enjoyed prosperous times. Old fashioned down towns were, of course, the only places to shop. Their streets were lined with a great variety of retail - "variety" being the key word. Their hours suited customers - open early, close late.

Fergus and Elora, Ontario were good examples of communities with vibrant main streets. Until the early 1950's, stores stayed open on Saturday evening until midnight to catch the crowds who drove to town, to shop and relax. Parking was at a premium with horses and buggies then cars lined up on both sides of St. Patrick, St David, St. Andrew and Queen Streets in Fergus; Metcalfe and Mill in Elora. Creamery and feed mill parking lots were beehives of activity. Sidewalks were chock-a-block full of people strolling from store to store and visiting around. The Drill Shed and Grand Theatre were packed with folks who came to town for a bit of entertainment after shopping. Restaurants served full meals until 11:30 p.m. but also did a brisk business in ice cream sundaes and sodas. There would be upwards of 500 people visit town on a typical Saturday night which was a great figure given area population at the time.

A phenomenon that developed in Fergus, was that local people loved to park their cars on St. Andrew and St. David Streets to watch the "show". This situation caused a lot of friction between the shop owners who preferred that the best parking spots went to their country/farm customers, and not to folks who brought their families down for an evening of "people gawking".

Talk about a cheap evening's entertainment. Only in a Scottish town, you say.

Farm people appreciated the stores remaining open late on Saturday as they rarely came to town during the week. It's interesting to note that, taking a page from history, one of the villages in North Wellington recently reintroduced Saturday evening shopping, and has enjoyed great success with the venture.

After the mid-1950's, with the advent of cheap gas and cheaper cars, main streets saw changes in shopping trends. People traveled a little further afield to shop. Larger stores made appearance on the outskirts of most cities - housed in buildings with a modern "throw em up look". Also during the late 1950's, these square-box glass-fronted, concrete block buildings began to make an appearance in the downtown areas of villages and towns, altering forever the heritage look of these communities.

Called in the building trade "simple box", theses buildings were simple and cheap, to build. They were, and still are, known as throw-away buildings as they were also simple to demolish when necessary. In a traditional downtown area, replacement throw-away streetscape was usually the result of disastrous fires, or building owners who didn't see the benefits of maintaining a heritage structure. And, as one architect who's interested in saving historic structures wrote about the 1960's - "Horror-of-horrors that developers would try to replicate the landscape into which they squeezed their cheap monstrosities."

If you look at any downtown, Fergus, Ontario being a prime example, you'll see a number of these simple box structures tucked between some fine examples of small town Victorian commercial architecture. As long as a downtown remains vibrant, this mish-mash of architectural styles will work. But, when those same box-like structures begin to make an appearance on the fringes of a community and you've got problems. Today, small, medium and big-box sprawl has reduced most cities and towns in southern Ontario to a stereo-typical landscape of sameness that has very little visual appeal.

The traditional main streets, now devoid of businesses that either opted for the strip and mall, or closed for lack of business, become a less appealing environments for shoppers. Two types of people will continue to patronize old-fashioned main streets, visitors and older residents. Visitors often see the beauty in heritage buildings and are willing to overlook the throw-away infill for the experience of shopping a heritage downtown. Some residents who still feel strongly about supporting main street businesses, will shop downtown.

Of those residents mentioned above, recent figures from the USA - I haven't found any figures that pertain to Ontario - state that only twenty-two percent of the residents who remember a vibrant downtown, will now spend time shopping main street. Put simply, when possible they continue to patronize shops in the downtown area. They resent the loss of essential services i.e. groceries, hardware, pharmacies to the fringe and would like to see them return to the main street core.

Thirty-two percent of the residents who have spend more than ten years living in a community will drive to a town or village with a full-service downtown to shop so that they can still have a main street experience. Both Elora and Elmira, Ontario are considered full-service communities because they still have grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, banks and other essential amenities in their downtown cores.

The most startling figure is that only five percent of new residents - those who have moved in within the last ten years - bother to support shops in a traditional downtown area. They're so used to shopping the strip and mall/maul that they don't believe main street is a viable entity in their new community. Five percent is not an encouraging figure, is it? To prove this point, I talked with a half dozen families who moved to Fergus within the past three years. Not one family out of the six, makes a concerted effort to shop in Fergus's downtown area. To make matters worse, four of these families haven't bothered to check what our downtown has to offer. One family, who lived on the south side, had to be told where the downtown area was located because they even do their banking out-of-town so had no need to come down the hill into the Valley although they did admit to prurchasing their home because they were taken with the gorge and river.

Towns and villages used to have individual charm and character, a distinctive look to their main streets and road approaches. Today, there's little difference between the fringe developments of- one community to another. You've seen one, you've seen them all. - Onelookslikeanotherwiththeendless streams of concrete block boxes, roll-em-out neon signage and huge parking lots. Speaking of
roll em out signs, several weeks ago there were fifteen on the strip of #6 highway south of Belsyde in Fergus. Talk about visual pollution and sign overkill.

It's a pity that small town Ontario/Canada has lost so much vibrancy and vitality. How can we reverse the trend? Public officials have to be more accountable for their actions regards building and demolition permits, design of public buildings and permission for new fringe development. Natural features and build heritage, in and surrounding communities, are important. Wet lands, waterways and the built heritage along rivers must be protected. Public officials must learn to say no to projects that will have a detrimental effect on a community. Rules must be implemented at all levels of government for the protection of heritage buildings, traditional streetscapes, natural landscapes and all they encompass.

Builders and developers must be sensitive to their surroundings. They must balance their profit margins against the need to preserve and protect built and natural heritage. They must build, when necessary, with a correctness for the architectural integrity of an area.

Residents must develop a real commitment to the preservation of the natural and built heritage in their community, with great emphasis onespecially that in the downtown area. They must support those businesses who are making an effort to survive on main street. They must put their physical presence in the downtown area. Main Street needs their undivided attention. The health of your community depends on your involvement in, and with it.

Remember that traditions and customs must be passed from generation-to-generation to create a continuity to life, a civilization for want of a better word. Those traditions must include built and natural heritage and cultural-specific customs. Liveable communities are those that treasure their uniqueness. A big part of that uniqueness is built and natural heritage.

Procrastination leads to apathy, and apathy to demise.



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