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Oct 2016 | LOCAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

RELATIONSHIPS ARE THE KEY TO BUILDING MAIN STREET MUSKOKA
Jeff Loney, Town of Gravenhurst

Muskoka, an area full of nostalgia for people around the world, has been a tourist attraction for as long as Canada has been a country. The first settlers of Muskoka built their living on agriculture and forestry; however, the rocks, trees and water that are still present today attracted tourists and residents alike.  The Town of Gravenhurst, or the Gateway to Muskoka, has long been the first stop for those going further north.  In 1866, A.P. Cockburn’s steamship service began making many remote areas accessible to the normal user.  This accessibility was the first step in Gravenhurst’s move toward commercial and industrial development.  These steamships eventually drew the railroad to Gravenhurst with the first train arriving just a decade later.  With industry and commercial demand booming in the area, Gravenhurst’s downtown was born.  Gravenhurst continued to thrive and even grow through disasters such as the Great Fire.      

Fast forward 120 years, and Gravenhurst, like many other small communities, began to lose their industry.  Previously popular for metal and rubber manufacturing, this small town was shaken as one after another of these factories began to close.  However, in typical Gravenhurst fashion, this was not the end.  The hard work and dedication of the residents kept this town afloat, and the booming tourism industry was helping. Vacancy rates were high, residents and tourists were travelling to neighboring communities and visitors were not leaving their docks. A question sat in the minds of everyone: What can we do to retain the character and history of this town, while ensuring that it remains vibrant and a destination?  Queue the Downtown Revitalization project.

It should be no surprise to anyone that vibrant downtowns are a cornerstone of a community.  Site selectors, visitors and potential business owner’s first impression of your town will be the downtown core.  Think of your own town’s core. Would you open a business here? When planning to visit somewhere would your downtown be attractive?  It was quite clear that this was not the case with Gravenhurst’s downtown.  It is one thing to know these facts but another to fund future ideas. Fortunately, the Town of Gravenhurst was accepted as part of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ (OMAFRA) Rural Economic Development (RED) program.  This program helped financially in creating initiatives that would make the downtown vibrant. 

It would be easy to take this opportunity to talk about how successful our Community Improvement Program has been, or how beautiful our new way-finding signage and banners are. These, however, are outputs, not outcomes.  You, the reader, are not looking to hear about the cookie cutter approaches that can be taken, but rather the innovative and unconventional tools that have placed our Downtown on the road to success. Throughout the following case studies you will read about how influence and positive relationships became a more successful driver than authority and accountability.

 

I. The Clock Tower

 

The main street of Downtown Gravenhurst builds around the historic Post Office.  This Post Office is home to the clock tower.  What could possibly be wrong about having a clock tower in your downtown?  Well, nothing, except that it was only right two times a day.  The clock tower had been broken and had not been running for many decades.  Over the past twenty-five years many campaigns and attempts were made to fix this clock (reminiscent of Back To The Future “Save the Clock Tower”) to no avail.  It wasn’t until a community member reminded people that the clock was ultimately on private property and was owned by the Canada Post Corporation that headway began to occur.  Sitting down with Canada Post and giving them options as to how we could partner to fix this valuable piece of infrastructure was how this project became successful.  While this win occurred at the end of the formal Downtown Revitalization program, it did not symbolize the end.  Instead those in attendance were able to see the beginning of an upward moving trend.  Lesson 1: The resources of many will always trump the resources of one.

 

ii. Facade and Sign Guidelines

 

In April of 2013, Gravenhurst Town Council approved the Streetscape and Façade Guidelines.  These guidelines were exactly that: guidelines.  The municipality has no authority to force building owners to comply with these guidelines unless they are funding renovations through the Community Improvement Plan.  These guidelines look at everything from façade material to sign direction.  There have been some very notable successes within this program, particularly through relationships with local property owners.  A recent resident to Gravenhurst purchased a building of great historical importance; however, it had not been well maintained.  Through a ‘Welcome to Town’ strategy, Gravenhurst’s economic development team was able to sit down and talk about the owner’s plans and ideas.  Through this conversation, the owner was very interested in why neighbours had done their buildings the way they had.  In almost all cases these buildings matched the façade guidelines and had been funded by the town.  “Keeping up with the Jones’” is not a new concept, nor is it something that many of you will be unaware of, and indeed it is what happened next.  Instead of merely relying on the Community Improvement Plan funding (that we of course provided him the information for), meetings were set up with some of the other businesses that he had mentioned. 

Through relationships with these property owners, we knew that they would talk about all of the benefits of the renovations.  Increased foot traffic, increased revenue and extra marketing were just some of the things that this new building owner heard.  The results?  The new property owner was able to see the positives of conforming to the façade guidelines, make contacts within the local business community and become a community builder himself.  In addition to the renovations, he required his new tenants to conform to the signage guidelines set out by the town.  In the future this owner will be able to talk with new property owners.  Lesson 2: Your economic development team is a great first step, however the relationships with the business and property owners will allow for unconventional attraction techniques. 

 

 

iii. The Fires and Vacant Spaces

 

From the Great Fire in the 1800’s to the more recent fires that claimed five buildings, Gravenhurst has had an unfortunate history of commercial blazes.  One property was redeveloped shortly after the most recent fire; unfortunately, the other four still have not been developed.  Undeveloped property can often become an eyesore, which is exactly what occurred in the years following the fires.  One property in particular, situated on a main corner, became of concern.   Instead of relying on the property standards by-law that would involve notices, fines and possible court cases, it was important to the municipality to find a solution that would be quick and unique.  The downtown parkette was born, a collaborative effort between the Gravenhurst Business Improvement Area and the municipality.  An agreement was made with the owners of the property that saw the community gain access to this land, while the owners were exempt from property taxes but still retained the property.  The Gravenhurst Business Improvement Area became the organization responsible for maintaining this property.  Instead of a vacant property, this space is now a great area for a picnic, an event or just a place to sit and relax.  This is the first and only public greenspace that is available in the immediate downtown core.  The unique agreement that was drafted will allow for this space to become developable if the owners so choose.  This successful agreement has led the municipality to start to look into other ways to help animate vacant spaces.

 

                                                                                          

Many of the vacant spaces in Gravenhurst are not advertised by traditional means such as real estate agents.  If investors are not local, and looking for space to buy or start a business in Gravenhurst, they have not had full access to the area.  The Town of Gravenhurst developed an available lands and buildings database that is located on the website.  While this database gave owners another opportunity to market their space, it did not address the issue of usership.  Even though the municipality had the greatest intentions with this database, its initial form did not quite solve the problem of local marketing.  After a couple months of this service not being used, obviously something need to be done.  Instead of pushing forward with another municipal idea, the property owners were consulted.  This not only helped the economic development department build relationships with the property owners but also allowed the people that would use this service shape how it would be built.  It was discovered in most cases that property owners were not finding users through the internet but instead word of mouth.  Through consultation it was determined that a marketing campaign should be used. 

Collaborating with the property owners, the local association of realtors and the website provider the municipality was able to find another unique situation.  For those businesses who were not interested in using a realtor, signs were developed.  These signs, intentionally different from the realtor signs, challenged those walking by to picture their business in the vacant space.  These two foot by three foot signs pushed people to the online database to learn more of the details and give further information.  Of the first three signs distributed, all of the buildings became occupied within a month.  In order to help the local real estate teams, a daily upload of available commercial properties was placed into the database.  Without the partnership of the local real estate association this database would not have moved forward.  Further work is being done to animate windows with help from the local arts cooperative and the local high schools.  Lesson 3: Strategies and plans are great, but without collaboration with community organizations and community input, they can fail to address key issues. 

 

iV. Moving Forward

 

As much as I would like to say that Gravenhurst has it all figured out, that would be a lie.  We, like many municipalities, are learning how to be more efficient.   We look forward to our community organizations and new community champions getting involved in the economic development process.  Whether it is through a formal community input process or a project specific collaboration there is room for all.  Ensuring that the economic development team has an open door policy (in that we literally have an open door) and that all ideas are given a chance is the best opportunity we have as a small municipality to revitalize our downtown.  With the formal Downtown Revitalization project coming to an end, the municipality is a prime spot to continue the momentum.  Without our community partners and the passion of our business community, this project would have ended.   If you have taken nothing else from this article I only ask that you remember: initiatives are more successful when they build and use your positive relationships. 

 

Find the full PDF here.

 

JEFF LONEY has worked with the Town of Gravenhurst’s Economic Development team since early 2015.  After having worked in other municipalities both large and small, Gravenhurst became the place to call home.  Community Building and Economic Development are his passions, whether it is through schooling, real world experience or professional development. Jeff can be reached at Jeff [dot] Loney [at] gravenhurst [dot] ca, @JeffWLoney on Twitter or on LinkedIn https://ca.linkedin.com/in/loneyjeff. Proud to live and work in Gravenhurst Muskoka!