History within these walls.

IMG_1156If you are visiting Welland for the first time, you might note the rich cultural heritage of the city…particularly evident on Saturday mornings at the local farmers’ market at Market Square. IMG_1107IMG_1126A memorial just down from the market beside the canal pays tribute to the people who built the Welland Canal. It is fitting, therefore, that the world is coming to Welland for the 12th World Dragon Boat Racing Championships because the world lives in Welland. Here at the European Pantry we celebrate this rich heritage of cultures. We carry a wide variety of ethnic imports and are always looking to find those products that bring the taste of home into the kitchens of Welland. IMG_3209Apropos then that our store here at 30 Avenue Place is located in a building that also has a strong cultural history. Today we had an enjoyable visit from yet someone else who has a family connection to the building.  It was a pleasure to meet Josephine Davies nee Ort.  Several members of her family lived here about 65 years ago. She told us of her German immigrant family, the Orths who settled as farmers on Forks Road south of Welland. Two Ort(h) sisters, Anna and Louise, married  two local Templain brothers, also of German heritage.  When Louise’s husband died soon after the marriage, she moved into 30 Avenue place.  Her sister Anna settled across the street at 23 Avenue Place. After both Anna’s husband and Louise died, Anna moved into 30 Avenue Place with her daughter Marjorie. Josephine said that Anna and Louise were real city girls despite their farm upbringing. They used their exceptional seamstress skills to keep themselves dressed to the nines.  Louise worked at a fancy store just a block over in downtown Welland….so dressing well was important.

So the walls of our store which once watched the activities of both German and Hungarian families must smile now as the descendants of these immigrant groups SAM_2135come here to find the foods that connect them to their roots.  And our city, built by immigrants of so many cultures, smiles as we welcome the dragon boat racers of the world!

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.

Weaving it together locally in Welland

IMG_3591Bernice Thibeault of the Niagara Handweavers and Spinners came by to check out our new tea towel designs. The weavers meet every Thursday at the Welland Historical Museum.  Join them at 9 am to see what they are up to. A $40 membership provides  lessons in weaving and allows you to join in at the looms each week.  It also gives you a year membership at the Welland Historical Museum.  You can pick up a pamphlet there.

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.