TGF & new beginnings

To be honest I have always found exclamations of “Thank God it’s Friday” a bit flippant.  End of work week jubilation probably grates on the ears of those without the privilege of a regular job to go to.  Wellanders who have experienced their “last Friday” might long for the good old Fridays of the industrial era and their steady paychecks.

But like Fridays’ promise of weekend fun, the end of that era has also lead to promise of new beginnings. I would like to share some of the exciting developments past the tracks in Welland’s East End.

  • A realtor told me last week that there are more new developments and building permits are happening in Welland East than in the rest of Welland.
  • The downtown BIA development board jurisdiction ends at the East Main tracks. Businesses east of the tracks are so excited about the new developments and initiatives that they see happening downtown they are wanting to get organized. I recognize this as a new beginning because I have lived in this neighbourhood for over 25 years.
  • Niagara Regional Council has approved retaining the Provincial Offences Act Court in Welland. A new courthouse is in process for the old Empire Public School property. Welland’s historic courthouse on Cross Street brought growth and prosperity to Welland in its day. This new courthouse will help spread the revival we are experiencing downtown past the tracks to the old Atlas Steels neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago on Friday I helped survey Food Fest attendees about their impressions of Welland downtown. There were an overwhelming number of positive responses to what is going on downtown. People are noticing. The young people love coming downtown. They are not focused on what was and will be no more. They see the new beginnings; a new Welland.

Let’s take a moment to remember the end of an era and celebrate new beginnings:

ffunnn. 058ffunnn. 060ffunnn. 062ffunnn. 061ffunnn. 064ffunnn. 059ffunnn. 054

Fika, koffeekletz, gezeligheid…

IMG_4031There are times when English for all its large word base is just not enough. As much as I am far more articulate in English than in Dutch, there are Dutch words that, like essential car keys, get me through the day. That doesn’t mean I use them in conversation everyday. Even with all the Dutch customers that daily come to our store, I do not always need these words to converse. Rather they are part of my identity and shape the way I live.

For me running our store, The European Pantry here in Welland, is about more than just merchandising European imports. It includes understanding and communicating about the cultures that we are celebrating. So I will often troll online to learn more about European cultures other than the one I grew up in. That is how I stumbled on the word “Fika“. Simply put, it means “coffeebreak” in Swedish but it didn’t take me long to realize that this simple word encompasses so much more. It is like the Dutch word “gezeligheid” conjuring up a whole spectrum of feelings, associations and memories.

I am a crime drama buff and lately I have been reading Swedish crime dramas in their Dutch editions. Recently that was ‘Oorlogskind‘ (Hidden Child in English) by Camilla Lackberg. Unlike their American parallels who meet in special meeting rooms, Lackberg’s Swedish police investigators meet to discuss cases in the lunch room over coffee and cinnamon rolls. When the police officers knock on doors to ask questions, they are invited in for coffee and cake. It all started to sound so ‘gezellig‘ that I had to remember I was in Sweden and not The Netherlands.  Dana Velden in her blog ‘the kitchn’ discusses the meaning of ‘fika’ . She explains that ‘fika’ is a daily, often more often, pause that nourishes not just the body but also the mind and spirit.  It is a conscious stop; the gathering of friends or co-workers to share time together. One commentator said that it is when teachers will discuss their challenging students. Unlike the North American concept of a break it is not just a stolen moment of laziness, it is rather an essential part of the social rhythm and fabric. And…this is important…it always includes food!  Especially the good stuff like cinnamon rolls and other sweets…what we call ‘gebak’ in Dutch.IMG_4036

My older Dutch immigrant customers have told me of their shock on first coming to Canada at being given a ‘naked’ cup of coffee by their Canadian sponsors or neighbours. That just wasn’t done back home unless you were very inhospitable. Coffee and tea must be served with cake or at least a cookie. Intrinsic to European culture is the high value placed on hospitality. But also the concept of ‘gezelligheid‘. Although the word is Dutch, the concept of an atmosphere that is warm, cozy and welcoming is not foreign to Scandinavian or German culture either. Each of these cultures understand the importance of creating a home that feels safe and ‘good’. The interior design movements of these cultures reflect this, too.

It extends to the workplace.  Unlike at home where the responsibility for hospitality falls on the host or hostess, at work everyone is expected to contribute to fika. In Dutch culture if it is your birthday, you are expected to bring sweets for everyone. I would be interested in knowing if that is also part of the fika  tradition.  Pausing regularly and talking…koffeekletzen… contributes to healthier relationships between family members, friends, and colleagues. It shapes a stronger society.

None of my children have settled in their hometown. When I visit my oldest daughter, I stay at least for overnight. When my son-in-law comes home from work, everyone gathers for coffee time. My daughter usually has delicious cake or treats because Gramma is visiting but I expect there is something sweet most days. The memory of these fika breaks in their home are cherished as I return back to my own busy routine at home. Here in Canada where people line up at the Tim Hortons drive-thru to carry their coffee into work, we are missing out on a tradition that helps to strengthen the fabric of family and society. Perhaps we should all begin to fika everyday!  You will find the best baked goods to go with that coffee here at The European Pantry, and of course, great coffee!

Read Dana Velden’s blog : Do You Fika?  The comments are worth a read, too!

Getting Toronto to Shop in Welland More: Reconnaissance – part 3

It certainly wasn’t a trip into enemy territory but lots of observation went on. Last Thursday, four members of the Downtown Welland BIA went on a reconnaissance field trip. We were are diverse group:  Julie Barker from McNall and Barker Paralegals; Heather Hudson who owns and is rehabilitating a building in downtown Welland, Stephanie Hicks our Business Development Officer at the DWBIA and myself, Jacqui Eisen, co-owner of The European Pantry.  Our investigative foray included visits to several other downtowns in the Niagara Region to gain insights into what attributes contribute to a healthy downtown community.

As we explored, we asked questions:

  • What characteristics does a healthy downtown exhibit?
  • What types of businesses are thriving?
  • Who are these businesses selling to?
  • Who is investing in these businesses? Where is business capital coming from?
  • What types of business plans appear to be evident?
  • What type of marketing are these businesses using?

Characteristics of healthy downtown business districts areas:

IMG_3666

  • Historic buildings and characteristics. Preservation of historic buildings and the historic details of business buildings is vital.  If people want  generic and modern, they will go to a shopping centre.  People gravitate to a downtown because they hope to see buildings of character with stories that are rooted to the history of the community. As I was writing this I did a bit of googling and found this interesting article: http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/fcs4/fcs4408/fcs4408.pdf
  • Clean well marked streets. Wide safe sidewalks. Sufficient free parking for both cars and cyclists. We had to dodge “doggie do” in one downtown.  That doesn’t contribute to an enjoyable shopping experience.  We noted secure cigarette disposal units in another downtown, something we are hoping to have soon in Welland.
  • Something for everyone. A wide variety of stores that cater to both local population as well as tourists. Higher end shops share the street with “dollar stores”.
  • Eateries post menus on the outside of their buildings. Visitors are leery of walking into a restaurant not knowing if they will like or be able to afford what is served there. When menus are not posted they are more likely to walk past and find the nearest fast food chain where they know what to expect.
  • Friendly, helpful staff that are quick to engage with consumers
  • No visibly empty store fronts. If stores are not occupied, the store fronts are maintained.
  • Integrated residential units. This included upstairs apartments and in one locality we found a beautifully rendered facade in stone that contained…we were surprised…student housing!

We noted the following types of businesses:

IMG_3657

  • One or more pharmacies
  • Women’s clothing stores
  • Decor stores and flower shops
  • Interesting eateries that offer a variety of food genres in atmospheric environments in a range of price brackets
  • “Non-chain” dollar stores with cute store fronts
  • Artist cooperatives or outlets that market the creations of a wide variety of artists. The stores focus on local art but allow other Canadian artists to display to ensure good selection
  • Bakeries
  • Specialty food stores that offer imports and domestic products that appeal to foodies and the ethnic buyer
  • A weekly farmer’s market
  • Spas, wellness centers and beauty salons that cater especially to women. We didn’t see any dubious massage parlours, adult entertainment or strip joints. These  are streets that families with young children feel comfortable and safe walking.
  • Professional services such as travel agencies, legal services, dental and medical offices, banks, etc.

Who are these businesses selling to?

IMG_3656

  • Ridgeway includes a thriving retirement community within its borders. It was evident that there were many businesses retirees would like to frequent. There was also very deliberate marketing to tourists and to the seasonal lakeside population that moves up from the US
  • Thorold seemed to cater more to the local population but it was as busy as Ridgeway
  • I would say St. Catherines’ clientelle would be similar to Thorold.

It is essential that target populations are considered as businesses are established.  Ridgeway didn’t start with marketing to tourists but as visitors gravitated to its quaint downtown, stores capitalized on this. Eventually shops that cater especially to tourists have sprung up next to stores with year round appeal.  Thorold downtown has been revitalizing in recent years.  I am not sure that Thorold has become a tourist destination but it is clearly thriving.  Welland has great potential to benefit from more tourism. We have key points of historical interest that could be developed more plus ours is the only downtown located on the Greater Niagara [cycling] Circle Route.  Cycling is said to be the new golf. Niagara has become a prime cycling destination because of the variety of attractions and cycling trails. These tourists are riding directly through our downtown along the canal. We are working on getting better signage to direct them into the city centre.  As a business we have contracted to have an icon for The European Pantry placed on the interactive map that is available for cyclers at: http://www.niagaracyclingtourism.com/bike-routes/greater-niagara-circle-route/welland-canal-recreation-trail/   Downtown attraction are already noted on the map. As more businesses buy into this form of advertising, a cluster of icons will form alerting cyclists to Welland downtown as a great stop off destination point.

IMG_3673Currently, only 28 communities of 440 municipalities in Ontario can boast being “bike friendly”.   Of those 5 are in Niagara.  Welland is one of those, currently holding a bronze status. We are working at upgrading that to silver by adding more amenities needed by cyclists such as: more bike racks in our downtown; better signage;  more consistent multi-model transportation; secure storage and parking for bikes; water stations and washrooms; delivery services for cyclists’ purchases.

Who is investing in these businesses? Detailed answers to this question were beyond the scope of our investigations that day but certain patterns could be observed:

  • Families who have a long history in business and particularly in that locality. Brodies Drug store in Ridgeway has been in business since 1902.  Their current renovation work includes conservation of their historic store front.  Welland examples are  AP Brown Jewelers who have been serving Welland since 1910 and Carl Damudes Office Supplies for over 40 years.
  • Persons who have a unique service or product that they believe in.
  • Young retirees who still want to be engaged in an occupation but don’t depend on their business for their income. Second income business owners can also fall into this category. The business is not viewed as a primary income source but rather as an outlet for a personal hobby or interest.
  • Entrepreneurs: visionaries who thrive on developing something new. If successful, these investors do not always remain the owners of the businesses they start because they often sell and move on to new projects. These people are often risk takers and do not always have a lot of start up capital. Therefore, unless they have a viable business plan their  ventures may not succeed.
  • Capital investors who see a healthy potential return on investment. These can be a boon or a bane to a historic downtown area.  Some capital investors are attracted to the unique attributes of a particular historic downtown and wish to invest in the preservation of such.  These investors often step in when a downtown is on the cusp of revitalization. Return on investment is realized because they buy when the real estate prices are still depressed.  These type of investors are a Godsend. The owners of the newly opened TARIS restaurant would fall into this category. However,  another type of capital investors can be a bane.  After local people have rebuilt  their downtown community national chain investors are attracted because they wish to capitalize on the consumer base others have developed.  There is little commitment by these national companies to maintaining the unique character of community.  We did not see this stage of development in any of the localities we visited, however,  I have seen it happen in other towns.  In some cases, this type of investment destroys the historic character that led to the revitalization.  Bylaws that require strict architectural conformity to the historic character of the community can become very important once revitalization has been successful.

What type of business plans are evident?  Successful businesses require viable plans.  Not everyone has enough start up capital to set up shop quickly and carry the business until it returns a profit.  Some businesses require a lot of expensive equipment. Others require a large investment in product.  As noted above, large capital investors will not be attracted until potential for return on investment can be visualized. This means that local people will need to lead the process of revitalization. So how do people without a lot of capital who need to make a living, leverage themselves into the role of successful business owners?  Here are some of the models that we noted:

  • Establish a clientele before opening a storefront. The owner of Niagara Cake Artistry in Ridgeway started her business in her home. Her first investment was a dedicated baking kitchen in her own home that conformed to health code regulations. After quite a few years she had established a clientele for her specialty cakes.  This allowed her to set up a store front.  The square footage of her display area may be small but customers can look down into her kitchen and enjoy watching her bake.  This inviting arrangement also saves on staffing costs because she can bake while she serves customers.  One has to sell a lot of cookies to pay the rent of a store front.  Therefore, usually small shops like this will have a “hidden” form of income by catering special events or through internet sales.
  • Share the cost and risk. Also in Ridgeway, Unique Creations Artisan’s Outlet markets the work of over 100 artists. Artists rent small display areas for a reasonable cost and must pay a 20% commission for the sale of any of their work.  Visual artists selling canvases do not pay rent but must pay a 40% commission.  This business plan has several strengths.  Display area rents probably pay the base rent.  Commission would need to cover staffing costs.  The outlet owner, Tracy Nie, doesn’t have to make a large investment in product but still is able to offer a wide variety of choice to the consumer.  Each article for sale is bar coded and artists are linked in via computer so they can see daily if any of their articles have sold. Artist cooperatives are a similar model.  Here the contributing artists share staffing requirements and the staff member present makes a commission on any product sold during his/her shift.
  • Start small and build. Our deli The European Pantry offers 100s of products from a large variety of importers.  However,  we started our business like a game of Monopoly.  Every time we “passed Go and collected  $200” we invested it in more stock.  We also started our business while one of us was still employed in another job.  Vacation days were used to build the business.
  • Innovative sourcing of product. The owner of the clothing store, Shannon Passero in Thorold takes her designs to Thailand to be produced.  Lorraine Hotchkies,  of L’Atelier du Pays Inc.  in Ridgeway uses the contacts she developed while she lived in Europe to source her product.  A perusal of what’s on offer at Redefined Design here on East Main Street clearly shows that the owner has real purchasing smarts.  As a specialty food retailer I spend a lot of time researching import sources to find food products that my customers crave. One also needs to be savvy when dealing with suppliers.  Know when to buy bulk for savings and when not to invest in quantity.
  • Buy a store front with living quarters above. Those who own their own house can obtain capital by selling that house and moving into the living quarters above their store front.  There are lots of advantages to such an arrangement: no lawn to cut or gardens to maintain; no travel time to work;  loft style living; near proximity to restaurants and other amenities. However, to realize more return on investment some DIY skills will be important if you aren’t coming in with lots of capital.  Remember that historic sells. Therefore, don’t try to make the building look new.  Celebrate its heritage look while bringing the essentials like good heating into the 21st century.
  • Partner with an existing business. Do you have a skill or product that would augment an existing business well? Perhaps you know a business that needs to expand its store space but can only find storefronts with too much space.  Or perhaps a business will trade space for help with staffing. Such arrangements can strengthen existing businesses while helping someone else get a start.

What type of marketing are successful businesses using?  The right type of marketing will vary with the type of  business but here are some things we noted:

  • Many of the businesses we scouted made full use of social media to network with their customers.
  • There is a joke among retailers: What happens to retailers with poor customer service? A. They become wholesalers. If you want to be in retail you need to be genuinely nice. You have to be willing to go the extra mile for your customer. You have to anticipate customer needs and offer extra services like delivery. You want your customers to talk about you to other people but you don’t want them talking smack.
  • Create a strong street/sidewalk presence. Signage is important. So is a storefront that makes people stop and look.
  • You can’t be an island unto yourself. Being involved in the community is a form of marketing.

As we concluded our field trip  we noted that quite in contrast to the military definition of reconnaissance, the towns we visited are our friends.  The business people we talked to showed marked interesting in working together as a region to attract tourists.  The more Niagara becomes a “go to place” the more we will all benefit.  If there are enough attractions to fill several days, visitors will need a place to stay and our accommodation industry will benefit,  too.

IMG_3653

Literal reconnaissance, however, is needed though on a more local level.  As mentioned the localities we visited had few if any visibly empty store fronts.  Until investors move in and rehabilitate empty units in our downtown, questions need to be asked about noticeable empty and decrepit storefronts.  Who owns the buildings that are being neglected? Are there property standards that are being violated.  Has the city been informed?  Are these buildings available for sale? What type of potential businesses would be appropriate for them?   How can we work with local realtors to fill these buildings with viable businesses? As good citizens we also need to guard against the incursion of shady and dubious businesses that contribute to a negative downtown identity.

Through Redefinition of how we view Welland; Through Reinforcement of Welland’s strength; And finally, through Reconnaissance:  identification of forces that are threatening our downtown and exploration of new possibilities, Welland can envision a bright, prosperous future.  Join the movement!

What’s your coffee footprint?

IMG_3648According to research, coffee is the number one beverage in Canada. Anyone waiting in line for their favourite java is probably not surprised by that. Fast food outlets and single serve coffee machines have shouldered their way in front of the old fashioned drip coffee maker in the quest to fill our coffee mugs each day.

But more and more people are starting to wonder about the effect all this convenience is having on the environment. Keurig says they are committed to making their coffee packs 100% recyclable by 2020. That’s five years away.  I was excited, therefore, to find a distributor for 99% biodegradeable  single serve coffee that will fit in your K-cup coffee makers. OneCoffee is also organic and of Fairtrade origin. These cups probably won’t degrade in your back yard composter (although you can be sure I will be trying that) but they do in commercial compost programmes like we have in Welland. Take a look…even the bag inside is compostable.

.IMG_3608 IMG_3612

Even more environmentally friendly are the Senseo coffee pods that we import from The Netherlands.  The Senseo machines are hard to find but the pods work very well in the SUN Cafe coffee machines that are available through Bed Bath and Beyond. These machines will give you a frothy espresso style cup of coffee. Customers have told me that they use the pods in other machines, too.  Senseo coffee pods will compost in a regular backyard unit like a teabag. Senseo is UTZ Certified…a European fairtrade programme.  Click here for information about UTZ.

IMG_3649

IMG_3647

And then there is the old fashioned drip coffee maker or instant coffee options.  We carry a number of excellent imported coffees and can source many more.

For true Canadian flavour try Muskoka Maple from Muskoka Roastery: IMG_3770:

Unfortunately, coffee cannot be grown in Canada. So every cup of coffee has a trail of footprints behind it already.  We can, however, try to limit the impact of those footprints on the local environment and try to ensure that our coffee enjoyment is not at the expense of coffee workers in other countries.

Reinforcement: Getting Toronto to Shop in Welland More – part 2

Do we want Toronto to shop in Welland more? People want life to be better in Welland. Better implies change.  Change is what I was alluding to when I spoke about “Redefinition” in the first part of this series on revitalization. To want better without being willing to change would be absurd.  Nevertheless, Welland has strengths and assets that we would be foolish to change.  Healthy revitalization requires a careful assessment of what we need to move past and what we need to cherish and “Reinforce”.

IMG_3636  Welland is in some ways, Canada in miniature. Officially bilingual. A cultural mosaic that experienced rapid post-war population growth. Like Canada in general it has had to transition from a resource based economy to something else. However, in spite of all the plant closures in the past 20 years, Welland’s population hasn’t declined.  In fact, it actually grew slightly, primarily because it has become a bedroom community for other work centres. People seem to like to live here. I was just talking to someone yesterday who commutes 2 hours to a job north of Toronto. She considered moving nearer to work but has decided to stay local because they found their dream property just outside of town. What makes people stay here? It has to be more than our low housing prices!

One of our greatest assets is our people. I have lived in Welland for over 30 years.  I love the people of Welland: our diverse cultures; our bilingual status; our small town innocence; even our old-fashioned, down-to-earth, working class mentality.

A visit to Welland’s Farmer’s Market underscores the diversity of our cultures. As you stroll through the aisles and along the farmer’s booths, a wide range of languages and accents can be heard.  Most certainly we all harbour loyalties to our particular heritage but yet there is a tolerance and appreciation among the different ethnic groups here in our city. We generally are not divided into racial or ethnic neighbourhoods. We live side by side. We marry across cultures.  I have been particularly aware of this because people coming to our deli, The European Pantry, frequently share their cultural history as they purchase our imported foods. I am not so naive as to think that racism doesn’t exist in Welland. One will find bigots anywhere, nevertheless, we shouldn’t take Welland’s racial harmony for granted. I know a couple who recently found it difficult to find an apartment in another municipality because they didn’t match the demographics of some of the neighbourhoods they considered. People coming from those types of municipalities find the cultural atmosphere in Welland very refreshing. We need to celebrate our diverse cultures through home coming events. Our fall food festival should showcase the foods of Welland’s people rather than mainly carnival food. At the same time, there is a fine line between celebrating culture and cultural insularity. Perhaps we do not have ghettos within Welland but is it possible that Welland has become a ghetto itself? Are we open to newcomers, to people who may look or speak differently than ourselves. If we want to attract Toronto and perhaps the world to Welland, we had better be welcoming when they get here.

IMG_3646  Of all the cultures that built Welland, our French-Canadian roots stand out particularly. Many people driving through Welland do double takes at our bilingual street signs.  Welland and Port Colborne are bilingual anomalies in a primarily English province. Who expects to find a bilingual town so far away from Quebec? Not many communities can boast the French services that are available in Welland. I was particularly interested lately in hearing that there are businesses in France that are looking at locating in Welland because of those services. We need to sell our unique bilingual heritage and status to investors and to French speaking tourists. That means moving past offering services in French to developing and marketing French cultural events. I know not all of us are bilingual. I for one never got much past cereal box French fluency. However, I do speak two languages.  I understand how deeply language and identity are tied. I understand those moments when English just cannot express what I feel. But having grown up in a sub-culture I also know how easily language can divide people. Welland cannot afford to have “Two Solitudes”. We need to practice inclusivity in our differences but at the same time we shouldn’t neglect capitalizing on our valuable bilingual status.

IMG_3634  Welland is a city of churches. Perhaps the majority of Welland sleeps in on Sunday morning but a tour of our streets reveals that the cultures that built Welland brought their faith with them. This is still evident in our community values.  We stop and give funeral processions right of way. Neighbours know and help each other. I have seen people work together to care for the stray cats in a neighbourhood.  There is a kindly respect for life that speaks of an innocence that has remained un-jaded in a world where life is cheap.  This type of life respect recognizes the value of every person.  Someone told me recently of being part of a group of people who aggressively pursued health services for a mentally ill person who was living in appalling conditions. The ill person appeared to not want help but recovered some of her quality of life because of their intervention. Call it good citizenship; call it loving your neighbour; call it naive, old-fashioned; call it what you will but it is a quality that hasn’t been lost yet in Welland. Let’s grab it and hold onto it. Hope is found in the concept that everyone has been created for a purpose. It is that hope that helps people to carry on when jobs are scarce and a better future seems a steep uphill struggle.

IMG_3630  Welland is a working class town and it has never pretended to be anything else. We do not have to apologize for our working class roots but perhaps it is time we accept that we can aspire to more. Our parents and grandparents exemplified a strong work ethic.  I recall an elderly neighbour telling me how proud she was when her husband would leave for work carrying his lunchbox down the street to Atlas Steels. The days of the steel plants are over but if we want a better Welland we better be willing to hard work.  Welland’s future will depend on our willingness to get our hands dirty and bend our backs to the task. However, there are elements of our working class background that need to change. I was talking to a lady who moved to Welland this past year.  She has been shocked at the level of vulgarity she sometimes hears in Welland. Truth be told, if some Wellanders were disarmed of their F-bombs they would have trouble communicating.  She also noted a lack of courtesy by people in reception roles…even at city hall.  If we want Toronto and the world to shop here, we better improve our manners. Working class heritage doesn’t excuse low class behavior.

We want Toronto to shop in Welland but we must not expect Welland’s revitalization to be dependent only on the non-resident consumer. People are one of Welland’s greatest assets. The people of Welland need to shop in Welland. Tourists are a valuable resource but we will come a long way by staying home and shopping in Welland instead of spending our money in other municipalities and particularly across the border.  On that same score though, businesses in Welland must market to its people.  Our business  has been criticized by wholesalers for our low prices.  We always remind the critics that our first responsibility is to Welland shoppers.  We cannot pretend to be in Niagara-on-the-Lake even if people coming to our store say it has that type of vibe.  We live in Welland.  Our business is in downtown Welland. The people of Welland are our customers. So we work hard to make sure they can afford to shop at The European Pantry.  The revitalization of downtown Welland will depend on learning how to appeal to both the local consumer and the visiting tourist.

The people are not Welland’s only asset.  Space in this edition limits me here to a list of our other assets. I will expand on some of these in the “Reconnaissance” portion of this discussion. Here are some of our assets:

  • The Welland Recreational Canal including features like the amphitheatre.
  • A world class rowing facility that attracts events like the Pan Am games and Dragon Boat races
  • An iconic historic lift bridge that is going to be lit “with capabilities of white and coloured LED’s with the structure as the focus of architectural lighting.”
  • The beautiful walking/biking trail on Merrit Island enjoyed so many local people and visitors. The equally beautiful city gardens that say “Welland!” as much as the signs that greet people as they enter town.
  • Close geographic proximity to the tourist populations of Niagara Falls and Niagara’s wineries.
  • The only Niagara municipality that has part of the Greater Niagara Circle Route running through its downtown. Check out http://www.niagaracyclingtourism.com
  • A year round farmer’s market
  • A large community college that attracts students from all over the world
  • Close access to inter-provincial and international transportation
  • Reasonable housing costs
  • Deep historical roots that are evidenced in historical points of interests and multi-generational family ties to the city
  • An educational system that attracts families from both within and outside Ontario who want their children educated in both our national languages
  • A huge art community which is centrally located to allow the enjoyment of theatre and the arts both locally but also from Toronto through to Buffalo
  • A small town community where you know the people you meet at the grocery store and pass on the sidewalk. A place where neighbours talk over the fence.
  • A vibrant sports community where many leading and famous male and female athletes got their start. Welland is also the home town of well known inventors, visual artists, musicians, leading politicians and broadcasters.

Being on the Downtown Welland BIA Board has opened my eyes to many initiatives that are being forwarded by people who really believe in Welland. The above assets will be used increasingly to bring people to Welland. It is time we stop making excuses for why we are not part of positive change.  I encourage you to attend the Community Improvement Plan meeting scheduled for June 1st at 5:45 pm in the Community Room at the Welland Civic Centre. If we want Welland to grow and flourish we need to reinforce these efforts.

Yes, we want Toronto to shop in Welland. And yes, change will be necessary for Welland to be better.  However, let’s remember our cultural heritage and reinforce the values that built this town so that as we grow we continue to respect the value of all our citizens. It is our small town values that make us so appealing to those Toronto shoppers we have been talking about. Small can be beautiful.

Part 3 of this series “Reconnaissance” explores ideas for the development and promotion of Welland.  Read more…

Getting Toronto to Shop in Welland More.

Mom2011 001Are you Welland proud?  Recently, I saw a Facebook post trashing Welland by a Wellander. It felt like a personal kick in the gut.  No one can dispute that Welland has suffered from economic down turns and shifts to cheaper labour pools.  Nowhere is that more evident than in our downtown core. But a city’s downtown is its soul.  The city’s history is written on those store fronts. Many personal memories are etched on those bricks. When we insult our city and our downtown in particular, we strike at the core of who we are.

I didn’t grow up in Welland but when my family moved here 30+ years ago, there was still a healthy downtown.  Living in East Welland means we have watched the downtown decline day after day, year after year as we have driven the East Main St. stretch to access other parts of Welland.  Yet we chose to locate our business in the downtown core 12 years ago because we believe in Welland’s soul.  The drive down East Main St. has changed since we set up shop here on Avenue Place.  Store fronts are being restored and there are now some solid businesses that are here to stay.  Most certainly, city hall moving downtown helped begin that move but if we want the trend to continue there are three areas of progressive initiatives that need to be forwarded: redefinition, reinforcement and reconnaissance.

Redefinition

Essential to revitalization is redefinition.  Declining;  Blighted; Dirty; Rundown.  These are words to be expunged from our vocabulary.  Let’s begin to speak of Welland’s re-emergence;  its potential;  its historical heritage; its re-development.

But words are not enough. There are strategies and actions that achieve redefinition.

Pride:  We start by picking up our pride and picking up garbage. Kudos to the Project Downtown team who organized a clean-up day a few weeks ago!  Effective bylaws that govern the pickup of garbage in the downtown area on pick up day are also important.  When recycling containers sit on the street too long, they get blown over and their contents from spill over the street.

IMG_1112

Beautification:  When the downtown looks good we feel pride and we don’t drop that garbage in the first place. Flowers;  reflection ponds with water  features; well kept gardens and canal pathways; an iconic historic bridge with paint that is NOT PEELING! All these elements are essential to redefining our downtown.   Equally important are measures that require absentee owners to maintain attractive storefronts of empty buildings.

Safety:  When we first set up shop downtown, people would ask us if we felt safe being here.  To be honest, I didn’t at first. We often fear what we don’t know. In the 7 months that it took to renovate our store I came to know the neighbourhood and realized there were no boogie men hiding in shadows. Instead I became part of a community that was committed to making the neighbourhood safer.  Local police have assisted business owners to make practical changes that improve safety.  People are taking responsibility for making it safer. It is amazing how fast youngsters climb down from where they ought not to be when you point you phone camera at them! Today, no one asks us if we feel safe because visitors feel safe.

IMG_1156

Events:   Only by coming downtown and experiencing it will people redefine their attitudes about it. People need to experience its beauty, its potential and historic value to redefine those attitudes. Only by coming downtown will they experience the safe feeling that those of us who are here all the time know.   This is why planning special events that bring people downtown is so important.  Easter egg hunts; music events at our beautiful amphitheatre;  street dances;  parades.  All these are opportunities for people to come downtown and to be impressed by what Welland is becoming.

Streetscaping:  This winter I had the opportunity to attend the Niagara Active Transportation Summit.  We learned about the development of “complete streets”.  These are city planning models that encourage  people to walk, cycle and use public transportation.  These models help to revitalize downtown cores.  It is a multifaceted concept and I encourage you to read the report at Healthy Living Niagara’s site.

The eyes of visitors see something different than the eyes of Wellanders.  When Toronto comes to Welland to shop, I hear their comments.  They see a beautiful town. They feel safe as they stroll along the canal and take pictures. They take pictures of our historic buildings.

So how do we get Toronto to shop in Welland more? It starts with Welland taking pride in itself.

Continue Reading:  Reinforcement

If you would like to read our earlier article, “Why Toronto Shops in Welland” please click here.

Why Toronto shops in Welland.

Yesterday, a customer came in confessing that he was twenty minutes down the road home to Toronto when he realized he had forgotten to stop by our store before leaving. He turned around. Last weekend we had a group of Torontonians come by. Immigrants from Russia, they were in town to see the historic Welland Canal.  We also have people coming in regularly for family in Toronto because they can’t find products at home. These incidents got me thinking about this shift. I grew up just outside of Toronto. In those days, we often traveled to “the city” to purchase products not available in our moderately large city. Now people travel to outside the city to shop.  Why? Most certainly, internet has changed the environment. Well maintained websites allow businesses in smaller communities to connect with customers on a provincial and even broader level. But I think there are also other factors at work. Welland is representative of many post-industrial towns. As factories closed we were left with more brown fields than green fields. The children of the post-war immigrants who had settled here left for those greener fields that we no longer could offer. Frequently, that meant Toronto and other larger centers. There are those who love the hustle and bustle of city life but there are also those who yearn for the simpler, stronger roots they remember in communities like Welland. People are coming home to visit and even retire.

IMG_1126

But not everyone I meet once lived in Welland. Those of us who have remained here often take for granted the attractions that Welland possesses.  We have a rich resource in the recreational canal.  People come to trace the history of the Welland Canal commemorated in many ways like above. Others come for the water sports hosted here.  This summer we will host racing events for the Dragon Boat races and Pan Am games.  The walking and biking trails on Merrit Island draw many visitors every year. This summer our outdoor waterside amphitheatre will stage musical events again. These visitors shop in Welland. People tell me that Welland has the best farmer’s market in Niagara. People travel to shop there. We benefit from The European Pantry’s location adjacent to that market. Proximity is important, so let’s not forget that Welland is next door to many wineries. There are also huge advantages to shopping in smaller communities like Welland. Yes, there are ethnic delis in Toronto but unless you live in the neighbourhood one has to battle traffic and find parking to shop there.

IMG_2170 IMG_2171

High land values necessitate squeezing product into much smaller stores to keep prices competitive. I thought our store was tiny until I visited Toronto stores like the one pictured above.  These stores do a good business but the shopping experience is much different. People who grew up in Europe tell us that stepping into our store is like going home.  We brag that we have Niagara-on-the-Lake atmosphere with Welland prices. In Welland we can create an iconic store atmosphere and offer low prices. And that is the crux of why Toronto shops in Welland.  We offer a break from the city: cultural, historical and recreational opportunities; a relaxed environment where people wave you into the parking spot they were about to take; a milieu where shop keepers have time to talk about food not just sell it to you. We need to stop apologizing for what we no longer are.  We need to catch the vision of what we can become. There in will be the salvation of post-industrial towns like Welland.