Andrea and I took a few weeks in October to take a holiday, visiting family and friends back in Ontario. It was good to see Andrea's Toronto-area siblings, as well as my family, and friends that we haven't seen in awhile.
We spent about a week in the town where I grew up - Fergus. It's about an hour and a half from Toronto, ten minutes north of Guelph. When I left Ontario, more than thirty years ago, it had about 10,000 people. In the intervening years, the population has doubled, largely due to houses for people who are willing to make the commute to Toronto every day. After leaving Toronto on a mid-week afternoon, it's not a choice that I would make, but apparently many people do.
With the increase in population, it now has businesses like McDonald's and Tim Horton's, and larger malls on the edge of town. But surprisingly, it also has a healthy downtown. We went there pretty much every day, and noticed how it's thriving. Some of the businesses have been around since I was a kid, but others are new. We had lunch one day at a restaurant that was at the rear of a health food store (and which I remember as the pool hall), visited a combination used book and essential oils store a couple of times, and browsed a chocolate and gift shop for treats for our cat sitters. We also dropped in at the newly renovated library several times. It is not a downtown without vacant store fronts, but unlike Prince Albert, the vacant stores are the exception rather than the rule. It was also, in the middle of the week, full of people, many of them seniors.
So what's the difference between Fergus and Prince Albert? I don't know all the answers, but I noticed some things. Fergus does not rely on government offices, so there aren't a lot of offices downtown. In Prince Albert, much of the prime downtown space is taken up with buildings that are only open five days a week, and aren't the kind of places where you can drop in and browse. The Fergus businesses that are downtown are all small, without tons of employees, but they're quite welcoming. And there are no parking meters, but we never had trouble finding a place to park.
They're also filling niches - the restaurant that we ate at was mostly vegetarian, but was full over the lunch hour, again with many seniors. Andrea commented that she'd never seen a restaurant serve hot water with lemon as a beverage, but she saw three people have that as their beverage of choice. That's a business that knows its clientele. And it's interesting that all three of the businesses that I mentioned had more than one purpose.
And people obviously had no safety concerns about being downtown. We saw no discarded needles, or panhandlers.
There is a downtown business association. A brochure, advertising that downtown was open on Sunday afternoons, was at the cash register at businesses. This may be to help them attract some of the tourists that are the lifeblood of the neighbouring small town, Elora, which has the good fortune to be on a river, and close to a limestone gorge, and is quite a tourist attraction.
One thing that they haven't done - spent money on signs pointing out where the downtown is, or on lampposts or fancy paving. Those things do not attract people - safe streets with thriving businesses do. Prince Albert needs to figure out how to do that.
"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you're heading." - Lao Tzu