Rural business hub gets makeover

SPIRITWOOD, Sask. — Spiritwood mayor and pharmacist Gary von Holwede prides himself on hearing there is no place to park on Main Street.

“Those are encouraging words,” said von Holwede, who owns the Spiritwood Good Health Pharmacy along the business hub with his pharmacist wife, Heather.

“That’s when I believe we are doing something right,” he said.

The town, which includes 900 residents but services about 5,000, participates in Saskatchewan Parks, Culture and Sport’s Main Street Saskatchewan program that supports communities revitalizing historic and business centres.

For Spiritwood, von Holwede said that means keeping traffic flowing into town and people shopping locally.

From a basement office down the street, Bevra Fee, managing director of Northern Lakes Economic Development Corporation, is surrounded by papers filled with other ideas to perk up the town where she was born.

“The goal is to establish a funded and well managed Main Street program,” said Fee, who is helping lead the town’s quest to gain Main Street accreditation status and be eligible for funding.

Currently it has affiliate status and limited access to program resources but under an accredited status, it could apply for as much as $20,000 for heritage conservation, $10,000 for building projects and $10,000 for community enhancement.

“Under the Main Street program, a hired program manager would promote the hub as a business and social centre for the community,” she said.

Fee noted challenges for a chamber of commerce run by volunteers in managing the workload of business and community promotion.

Step one for Spiritwood was collecting comprehensive information about a defined area of main street businesses, including when they were built, their historical value and their business profiles.

Fee hoped this information will improve communication with the businesses about the program and other initiatives such as highway signage, special events, website creation and succession planning and Shop at Home campaigns.

Over one year, Fee shopped almost exclusively in town for her family’s needs and blogged about it.

“I found if they don’t have it, they will order it in for you,” she said.

It wasn’t without challenges, including filling up with gas the night before an early morning trip and poring over flyers to get deals competitive with larger urban stores.

Fee said the goal is to identify the town’s assets.

“You don’t want to invent a new identity and have it fake,” she said. “You want to soul search what your community is all about.”

Artwork will adorn light post banners created to display themes of nature, lakes, heritage and recreation in the community.

“It’s what was there when it started, what it still is today. It shows off the town identity and helps reminds ourselves,” said Fee.

During a tour of Main Street, Fee pointed to an empty lot beside the busy post office, where a park could be created.

“Gaps are opportunities to put something in there,” said Fee.

Cultural displays in empty store windows in addition to flower pots can also create an inviting environment for shoppers. Metal siding is prominent but also practical and durable and gives dilapidated buildings a facelift, she said.

At The Nines, hairdresser Rachelle Beauchesne brought her specialized Paul Mitchell training and a city vibe to her small salon, transforming the space with bold colours and a lounging couch.

“I never would have had my own salon in Saskatoon. The market is too saturated and expensive,” she said.

“You can realize those dreams in a small town a lot easier.”

Guy’s Furniture bursts with bold tables, couches and electronics, spilling into another showroom across the street.

Martodam Family Retail store down the street is equally stuffed, using up almost every square foot of space for items ranging from sneakers to baby clothes to bedding.

Across the street from a wolf statue, erected as a symbol of the town’s spirit and vitality, sits a modern office building housing the Agency Chiefs Tribal Council.

Steven Jim, ACTC tribal representative, said the ideas taken from the Main Street program extend beyond downtown.

“Those opportunities could be happening on First Nations too.”

Jim said communities benefit from economic development initiatives, good roads, recreational facilities and job opportunities.

Von Holwede said the program resulted in moving the Spiritfest and Heritage Hoopla, slated for June 5, from the recreation centre to Main Street.

“Revitalization is taking a look at what you have been successful at in the past. It’s an awareness that things are important, they don’t just happen by chance.”

Bruce Dawson, manager of historic places programs for Saskatchewan Parks, Culture and Sport, said the Main Street program differs from other economic development initiatives.

“You don’t have to build it, just maintain it,” he said. “What is unique is the focus on heritage conservation and using historic buildings as assets.”

Dawson said downtowns are often hubs for people to come together.

“Main Street is about recapturing some of that,” he said.

Dawson said it offers a proven approach to revitalizing communities by capitalizing on their historic assets and cultural identity.

“With that, they also get economic growth,” he said.

Communities can apply each year and can remain involved as long as they want. There are currently 15 communities in the program, including five at the accredited level.

Maple Creek was involved through the demonstration phase of the program that began in 2011 and has implemented programs like a small business loan co-operative to help support business owners rehabilitate buildings. It also works with nearby Cypress Hills to promote the area and partner with Community in Bloom to spruce up public areas.

Contact karen.morrison@producer.com

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