Wiarton looks to offset ‘Big Dig’ with big data and business grants
Wiarton’s carefully planned $11-million ‘Big Dig’ infrastructure and beautification project to revitalize the two-block stretch of its downtown core was designed to give the heart of the community new life. Then COVID-19 arrived, adding many unexpected delays.
“The timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate,” says Danielle Edwards, Manager of Economic Development and Communications for the Town of South Bruce Peninsula, which includes Wiarton. “Downtown Wiarton saw a decline in visitors to the area for two years.”
Rural communities across Ontario have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Wiarton, a community that relies on a sliver of the 2.5 million tourists to the Bruce Peninsula area to stretch their legs and shop on its main street, a two-year detour is a lifetime.
Many of the 60 businesses or so on Wiarton’s Berford Street are grappling with the impacts of COVID-19. Edwards says four businesses have closed. For a rural community of just under 2,000 people, you can’t dilute the social and economic impact of four main street businesses closing. It’s the sort of sentiment that lingers and has an effect on the entire community. “My heart bleeds for the businesses. I want to do anything I can to help support them,” she says.
This was the weight Edwards was carrying when she applied for the My Main Street Local Business Accelerator program. My Main Street is a two-year initiative established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s funded with a $23.25-million Government of Canada investment, through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), to support the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) and Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO) in delivering the program. It’s also tied to the idea that main streets are more than just the place where people and the economy intersect—they’re the beating heart of Ontario’s communities.
South Bruce Peninsula is one of 65 southern Ontario communities that are receiving a non-repayable contribution of $50,000 toward the 12-month salary of a Main Street Ambassador to provide hands-on support and advice to local entrepreneurs. In addition to the funding for an ambassador, those communities will also receive up to ten $10,000 contributions to support new and existing businesses.
“Being able to provide a $10,000 grant to a struggling business, or being able to hand $10,000 out as an incentive to attract a new business to establish themselves in downtown Wiarton is going to be so impactful,” says Edwards.
As part of the program, South Bruce Peninsula will receive a community market profile. Drawing from thousands of data points, the community market profile will arm businesses with a sophisticated portrait of their community’s trade area—the target demographic, the way residents spend their money and mobility, their preferences and how they consume media. Alongside the community market profile, My Main Street will help conduct on-the-ground surveys to identify gaps in the market.
Edwards says that level of data will be a key part of the revitalization efforts. According to Statistics Canada, between mid-2020 and mid-2021, a record 64,000 people left Toronto for other parts of Ontario, the biggest loss for the city in 20 years. Rural communities are one of the benefactors of that exodus, creating an opportunity to diversify main streets with new ideas and fill current vacancies.
Edwards has noticed an uptick in seasonal residents moving to the South Bruce Peninsula full-time. When Wiarton’s beautification efforts wrap up in the spring of 2022, it’ll have the opportunity to emerge as an even more attractive place to live and work. “I think you’re going to see more people moving up this way,” says Edwards.
She’s speaking from experience. Three years ago, tired of the commute and fast-paced life in Georgetown and working in Oakville, Edwards decided to move to the South Bruce Peninsula. She says there’s no question the My Main Street data and grants will make it easier for other entrepreneurial minds to do the same. “I’m really optimistic that we’re going to be able to attract some new businesses.”