A Main Street Makeover. How to counter clicks with your bricks. Main Street is the heart of any neighbourhood and it is in our collective interests to keep it beating strong.
I live in the East End of Toronto, in a neighbourhood called 'The Beaches,' a small village nestled up to one of the world's great cities. Thanks to Lake Ontario, we enjoy one of the most extensive and beautiful lakefront beaches. In the summer, thousands of people come down to take in the rays, play volleyball, cycle and swim, and throughout the entire year, the boardwalk and sand are the perfect places for a stroll and exercise your dogs.
The architecture of the Beach is eclectic and charming. Side streets are lined with semi-detached homes, with notes of Victorian and Edwardian and low-rise apartment buildings and rowhouses. The residents fight to keep the neighbourhood low-density, with some even getting heritage designations. However, developers and even councillors are willing to surrender the aesthetics, and what makes us unique, in favour of new developments that chase profits by cheating the bylaws.
Yet My Main Street Is Suffering
And when Main Street suffers so does the value of your homes. The oxygen of our Main Street and every Main Street across Canada are shoppers. They breathe life, energy and disposable income to keep our restaurants and shops alive. They prevent buildings from being boarded up and their loyalty fund flowers on the street and programming to attract visitors. Vibrant Main Streets protect and increase the value of homes, while boarded-up ones have an adverse effect.
The challenge that my Main Street faces, and almost every other is the shift in disposable income from bricks to clicks. The pillars that support a great Main Street - the location, convenience, safety and choice, are crumbling under the weight of a world where all you want to buy is within a click's reach of desire.
So do you surrender your Main Street to Amazon's rising bank of ambition and in doing so trade the thousands of cardboard parcels and meals being delivered for boarded-up stores? I wouldn't and I have a process and ideas to save my Main Street. The same process can work where you live.
The end game - make your Main Street a Place to Be
The key is to make your Main Street the Place to Be. If your Main Street is simply a place to buy then you will lose out on the convenience of home delivery. If it is the 'Place to Be' then you have an offering that beats with something online can never have...and that is a heartbeat. Your Main Street is an exciting destination to shop, play, eat and connect with other human beings.
Step One: Bring your Brand to Life
There are 140 official neighbourhoods in Toronto. If you live in an area that has such a designation what are you doing as a resident or local business person to own it? To bring it to life? Let's take Little Italy for example.
When you walk into this neighbourhood do you feel see, feel, taste, smell, hear and touch Little Italy? Do the businesses that operate there, and the people that live there see it as a street sign, or a stage to act upon, to amplify the notes of all things Italy?
For example, and these are off the top of my head - maybe street Gondola on wheels rides for the kids, a pedestrian-only path on Sundays? Does Ferrari use this neighbourhood to show off its cars, and Alitalia and Italy's tourism board take over an empty store for a popup tourism centre? Pop up cheese shops, learn how to can your own tomatoes in the fall, or spin fresh dough into a pizza. Is there a walk of fame for the people who grew up in the neighbourhood and helped to build the city or country we know? Can I smell, taste, touch, feel and be all things Italy?
Step Two: What do you have in your neighbourhood that's good?
Do you remember the scene from Apollo 13 when lead flight director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris says - what do we have on the spacecraft that's good? I would apply the same thinking to your Main Streets. What do we have that is good, different and unique?
Let me use my neighbourhood 'The Beach' as an example. We have something that is incredibly good and unique, we have the beach. It is endless, it is expansive, and it is inviting. The problem is that we never connect the traffic on the beach to our Main Street. A lost opportunity.
What if we connected the Beach to Main Street?
A few months ago I sat down with Desmond Brown a successful realtor and host of the podcast In the Six, and Mary Beth Denomy, who runs an agency called Free for All Marketing. Both are passionate 'Beachers' who also volunteered on the board of the local newspaper, Beach Metro Community News. They were picking my brains on how to ensure the sustainability of the newspaper but our conversation also included how to revitalize our main street.
When I asked myself what do we have that is good the answer was obvious. Lake Ontario, beautiful sand, accessible traffic, and summer heat attracts tens of thousands of people every summer, but only a handful ever visit our Main Street, Queen Street East, which is only a short walk away?
If Connection is a Key Then Let's Start Connecting
The answer came to me when I started to imagine other great beach destinations. I love Miami as they really understand how to brand their neighbourhoods, the Art Deco District, South Beach, Wynwood, and Coconut Grove. Each has a visual identity, and South Beach well it's known for its lifeguard chairs. The same holds true for Siesta Key, Hershire Beach in Jamaica, and many other destinations.
What if we did the same with Toronto Beach? This is the beach's answer to lifeguard stations. Sitting on one of the most beautiful city beaches in the world are lifeguard chairs that look like they were dragged from a scrap heap. What if we created this.
Each lifeguard chair would combine the functionality of its intent, combined with something that reflected the unique characteristics of the beach it sat on. Now here is where it gets interesting.
What if every street sign on Queen Street East was topped by a miniature lifeguard station that paired up with its location on the beach. Connection.
What if you could buy models of the Lifeguard station on Main Street? Or Tee-Shirts and merchandise? Connection.
What if you staged a local design competition to design the lifeguard stations and their construction and maintenance funded by a local business? Funding.
What if each Lifeguard Chair was duplicated on Main Street and became a photo opportunity? Connection + Amplification
What else could we do to encourage the connection between beach traffic and foot traffic on Queen Street East? Lockers and showers for people who enjoy the beach, combined with a free shuttle or 'pay what you can' to connect the tens of thousands who visit the beach to Main Street. A signature dessert that several restaurants serve - think of key lime pie in Florida and pecan pie in New Orleans. Deals with landlords to have any vacant stores become a pop-up for beach artists and crafters. Queen Street East becomes a pedestrian market and street fair on weekends. Bathing suit attire and dogs are welcome. And what else do we have that is good?
Kew Gardens Park is One of a Kind
One-of-a-kind programming at Kew Gardens. A beautiful park with its own bandstand. A stage for the younger generation to stage their own plays, and create their own content.
The Fox Theatre
Fox Theatre - vintage and classic. Stage black and white film festivals, and lectures with local beach celebrities. A film school that ties in with Hollywood North which borders the Beach.
The Beach is home to some incredible sports history. We have Woodbine Swimming Pool with Olympic Dive Towers. Lacrosse Field, rugby field, Balmy Beach Club, a volleyball park, skateboard park, tennis courts. Connect all as a sporting odyssey and invite local Beach athletes to become the honorary captains. Penny Oleksiak, one of Canada's finest swimmers becomes the ambassador of the Donald D Summerville Olympic Pool.
John Leslie Harrison took this photo of the Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools in the late 1980s.
And now my pet peeve. Three of the biggest traffic drivers to Main Street are government monopolies that include lottery, alcohol and cannabis. Today, these monopolies are trying to monopolize all your disposable income by offering more products, with more advertising all driving you online. This has to stop.
Final Thoughts - Main Street Makeovers
Main Streets means the world to any neighbourhood, and to your property values. If we trade cardboard boxes for boarded-up stores, we lose the energy of people coming together to shop, eat, play and be and our property values plummet. We can't ask people not to shop online but we can make Main Street a place to be. Own your brand, focus on what you have that is good, and create experiences that make eyes shine, hearts beat, and cash registers sing. Now, who is joining me for a cold beer and a barbeque on Queen Street East, followed by a nice beach walk?
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