April 04, 2022
| accelerator

Stratford and St. Marys’ data-driven approach to revitalizing their main streets


During the Stratford Festival season, downtown Stratford truly shines as theatregoers from near and far wander alongside the Avon River, duck in an out of quaint shops and fill the European-style patios that line the main streets. Others drive through the countryside to neighbouring St. Marys for a quieter but equally eclectic collection of shops set in century-old limestone buildings.

With the emergence of COVID-19, a very different stage was set for this world-renowned tourist destination. The 2020 theatre season was cancelled outright, and Festival organizers had to creatively adapt their 2021 offerings to accommodate social distancing, capacity restrictions and increased health and safety measures. By the summer of 2021, 15 businesses in the area had permanently closed. Furthermore, the resulting erosion of identity and the eerie stillness brought on by stunted seasonal tourism, forced the business community to ask some hard questions.

“How do we start talking about the what else?” says Joani Gerber, CEO of the Stratford Economic Enterprise Development Corporation (SEEDCo.). “Like what else is interesting about your business?” As it turns out, the answer is lots. The area is not bound to its seasonal tourism roots. There’s space for revitalization and newness, and that’s what Gerber hopes to achieve with support from My Main Street, a two-year initiative established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is funded with a $23.25-million Government of Canada investment, through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), and delivered by the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) and Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO).

As part of the My Main Street Local Business Accelerator program, the area will receive a non-repayable contribution of $50,000 toward the 12-month salary of a Main Street Ambassador to provide local entrepreneurs with hands-on support and advice. In addition to the funding for an ambassador, it will receive up to ten $10,000 contributions to support new and existing businesses.

Stratford and St. Marys have also received an in-depth market analysis that combines high-quality research gathered from thousands of data points to identify the community’s trade area, its demographics, how residents spend their money, their mobility, their consumer preferences, and how they consume media. The research includes on-the-ground survey data from the community to highlight the retail needs and service opportunities.

It’s still in the early stages of the program, but already the data is showing that things are changing. Anonymized cellphone travel data indicates the number of daily visits into downtown Stratford has recovered from the pandemic-induced drop. However, instead of coming from the northeastern United States, visitors are coming from other parts of Ontario. That mobility data can also be broken down into the number of trips taken by people within the trade area into the downtown by season—winter, spring, summer and fall—from 2019 through 2021. The numbers help business owners understand shopping patterns for locals and visitors, alike.

Stratford and St. Marys will be able to contrast the data with their business inventory to identify whether there are opportunities for new businesses based on local household expenditures.

Gerber, who’s spearheading the rollout of My Main Street for the area, is excited by the data’s potential—especially as the communities evolve beyond tourism. Stratford just restarted the development of its Grand Trunk Community Hub, which aims to create a bustling point of activity downtown including an expansion of the University of Waterloo Stratford campus, the construction of a new YMCA and market-rate or student housing.

“And there are exceptional things happening in St. Marys from a quality-of-life perspective,” adds Gerber. “It is a community that has gotten quite aggressive with respect to attainable housing, which is super important from a workforce development perspective.”

But Gerber is quick to point out that attracting young families or individual professionals means having the right mix of businesses—you need nightlife options and entertainment value, you need chiropractors and services within walking distance of downtown. In essence, you need a main street that feels like it has it all while preserving that spirit of place. My Main Street will help the area do that.

“As we’re thinking about how we fill our vacancies and how we help our existing businesses, it can very much be future-focused,” says Gerber. “It doesn’t just have to be, well, what do we need right now? It can be, let’s think about this from a much larger perspective.”

PARTNERS

My Main Street is a partnership between the Economic Developers Council of Ontario and the Canadian Urban Institute.

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