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Main Street Programme Revitalizes Downtowns

Alberta Connections Magazine
Spring 2000

By Marylu Walters

The Main Street process includes a visioning exercise and drawing up design guidelines. Even school children get involved. All photos copyright Alberta Connections Magazine.

Wanted: Alberta communities interested in revitalizing their historic downtowns, improving community pride, and even attracting new residents and tourists.

The Alberta Main Street Programme has openings for qualifying communities to launch projects based on restoring the facades of their historic downtown commercial buildings and developing a long-term vision and strategy for marketing and economic development.

Since its beginning in the mid-1980s, the program has involved more than 20 communities—from Nanton and Vilna to Medicine Hat's North Railway Exchange and Calgary's Inglewood, says Alberta Main Street Programme Chief Merinda Conley.

Those that have completed their programs are already counting the benefits in more shopping traffic downtown and lower retail vacancy rates, Conley says.

"The changes can be quite immense. You've made the downtown more viable, so it not only maintains existing businesses but brings in new businesses.

"A lot of Main Street communities are becoming attractive to people who want to move there to live, especially seniors who value older historic things. We're also seeing an influx of people who want to use them as bedroom communities. People want to come into a shop and know the shop owner, and many are looking for safer places to raise their children."

The program is open to communities with a population of 50,000 or less and to older communities within larger municipalities with a significant proportion of commercial buildings dating from their early development. The program focuses on restoring facades 50 or more years old. Projects such as Ponoka (see here) have included architecture from the modern period.

The Alberta Historical Resources Foundation provides funding from Alberta Lotteries for various aspects of a Main Street project, including building restoration and a project coordinator's salary on a cost share basis. Participating communities sign an agreement with the foundation and commit to a seven-step process that includes undertaking a visioning exercise and drawing up design guidelines for future restoration and development. The program focuses on the four key variables of downtown revitalization: organization, marketing, design and economic development.

It is important for a community to learn how to market its revitalized main street, Conley says. "When project funding ends, people remember what they learned and can carry on with their marketing. They have an image now and can market that image and everyone benefits."

Projects last three years and may be renewed once. Communities that have completed their programs remain in the Alberta Main Street "network" Conley says. "We do some joint advertising with them and work together with them in any way we can."

Her office is preparing a detailed, hands-on information package that will show communities how to create a Main Street project from beginning to end. The package will be available free to Main Street participants and at cost to other interested communities.

For information
 Merinda Conley, The Alberta Main Street Programme, 403-297-8939.

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