Small Businesses - The Lifeblood of Main Street

Today, with large retail outlets and box stores, rural Main Streets have been charged with the tough task of staying viable and relevant in an ever increasingly difficult economic climate. Where medium sized department stores or general shops may have once lined the Main Street of many rural communities, smaller specialty shops, boutiques, and service-oriented businesses have had to step up and establish themselves as the mainstay of our downtowns.

This sort of downtown restructuring has left some rural cities, including Wetaskiwin with empty storefronts and buildings. Some have even become run down; eyesores on their respective downtown cores.

The reality of that situation may seem bleak, but as the clichéd phoenix rises from the ashes, so too does a new positive attitude with regards to our own Main Street, as businesses slowly began to fill up those once vacant storefronts.

“I think it’s really important for Wetaskiwin to keep its strong downtown and keep on developing with the revitalization because, although we don’t have the big box stores, we have a lot of small, unique stores in the downtown area that work very hard to keep Main Street alive, viable, and vibrant,” commented Wetaskiwin and District Chamber of Commerce executive director Judi Best.

“Box stores are not going to move into our Main Street downtown, so if we don’t keep those small stores up and running and alive and working together, our Main Street will die.”

Best is happy to see new businesses finding a home and Main Street and hopes they will establish themselves well in the community and be an attraction for out-of-towners.

“I can look at this two ways: we can boast about the Main Street from a business side and we can also boast about it on the tourism side. Last summer, we had 1,000 visitors come into the visitor information centre and ask ‘what is there to do in Wetaskiwin? Where can we get a good meal?’” said Best. “We’re sending them to those small downtown businesses and restaurants. Those are the shops you don’t see elsewhere. They’re one-offs. We really push our downtown.”

A unique downtown core is the lifeblood of small, rural cities and with the newly renovated Main Street, the chamber is looking forward to the new year to begin working to build better partnerships between downtown businesses and looking to hold more promenade events like block parties and farmers markets.

“That will give businesses an opportunity to get out there and show people what they have to offer,” said Best. “The more events that we can hold in that area, the better. That’s what can help increase business.”

More promenade events will help to bring better exposure to businesses and exposure is exactly what Stitch’n Magician was hoping for when its new owners decided to move into the old Fields department store on Main Street.

“Where we were, a little off the beaten path, there’s little exposure, so you don’t see us,” said co-owner Travis McCallum.

“Now, on Main Street, it’s there and getting a lot more walk-in business. We’ve had quite a few people just popping in and all of a sudden they’re ordering or purchasing a jacket, so the move has been a good move for us.”

The increase in foot traffic and walk-in business is likely due, in part, to the ongoing Main Street revitalization efforts from the city. Two phases of Main Street upgrades have been completed over the past two years, costing about $13 million. The renovation efforts, with the wider sidewalks, planter boxes, and stylish lamp standards have breathed new life into Main Street.

Angela and John Markis of Angelo’s Pizza and Pasta have been at their Main Street location for 20 years and said that while the revitalization caused disruption in business over the last year, they are seeing the benefits of it now.

“Main Street is quite lively now. I’ve noticed that it looks a lot cleaner so there are a lot more people spending time downtown. It’s a nice environment, it looks great,” said Angela.

She noted that the revitalization of the downtown has brought in enough outside interest that the restaurant itself has had it’s own revitalization, developing a new menu.

“This summer was fantastic and the new Main Street has enticed more people and businesses to come downtown,” said Angela. “It’s done wonders for this town and I only hope it continues going forward like this.”

John was quick to point out that a unique downtown is often key in the media’s portrayal of small city life, with idyllic streetscapes flanked by specialty shops and hosting street festivals. These ideas are now reflected in the look and feel of Wetaskiwin’s new downtown.

“They come to these small town communities and if these Main Streets weren’t here, they wouldn’t come. They wouldn’t search out these businesses,” said John.

“This downtown, it’s got a life to it.”

Sarah O. Swenson/Wetaskiwin Times

2014 Small Business Week feature

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