Creating vibrant main streets: What will it take?

In this session, we discussed the importance of main streets to support resilient communities, and the work ahead to restore them to be more inclusive and vibrant places.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. 3 Cs: Community, Culture and Commerce

According to Carol Bebelle, Executive Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, a good community cannot exist without the 3 Cs. Of the three, people (community) are the foundation for culture and commerce. Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard is a vibrant main street in New Orleans steeped in African-American civil rights history. But the celebration of this particular history was never meant to be exclusive to a particular group. Negotiating the differences between diverse groups is key to enabling people to band together and revitalize local commerce. The community development model in Oretha Castle Haley has been recognized nationally for best practice in the United States.

2. Rethinking community ownership over civic and communal spaces

Graham Singh, Executive Director of Trinity Centres Foundation, suggests churches and other faith properties should be at the disposition of main street communities. Churches play vital roles in communities that reach far beyond hosting congregations, such as providing a venue for youth sports and basement gatherings. This history of flexible use can be leveraged to revitalize main streets. Singh, as the pastor of St. Jax in Montréal, has opened up his church to a range of non-traditional users, including circus cabaret group Le Monastère, to reactivate and revive the surrounding neighbourhood. The ownership and use of these communal spaces will be important going forward to preserve civic uses and keep non-profits in the centres of Canadian cities.

3. “The pandemic is the ultimate pilot project”

According to Rino Bortolin, city councillor for the City of Windsor, in a matter of one week the City erased 40 years of policies to allow for patios and sidewalk animation. These ordinances were built up over the last few decades for the sake of managing risk, but he says they have ultimately held Canadian cities back. Bortolin calls for municipal governments to shift from risk management to allow for risk taking that better supports brave, innovative entrepreneurs. Singh identifies the loss of all local businesses as the real risk cities should be managing.

4. Tending to the local garden

Jess Zimbabwe, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for Main Street America, calls for the need to develop a better entrepreneurial ecosystem. Previously, communities pursued economic development by attracting businesses from other places. According to Zimbabwe, we should be “looking inward and doing that real gardening of the businesses you already have.” This approach leverages existing assets and strengthens community capacity. Bebelle further emphasizes that it is critical to invest in the voice of the community, enabling representative organizations to effectively bring their concerns to elected officials and developers.

5. Municipalities must go beyond just regulating

Councillor Bortolin calls on local governments to evolve into active partners as opposed to passive regulators. He suggests the municipality take a proactive approach to development based on the design and build model. Community capacity building and publicly guided development must be baked into policy for long term consistency between election cycles. This will ensure that the present community benefits from growth and investment. By working with private developers, in close collaboration with community organizations, municipalities can incentivize developers and secure the necessary community benefits. It is important to plan with people, not for them.


  1. Oretha Castle Haley Blvd: A community for all – video
  2. My Main Street is a 23.25 million investment to help drive business and restore vibrancy to local communities across southern Ontario in the aftermath of COVID-19.
  3. The SPACE Coalition (Saving Public Access to Community space Everywhere) is working to improve access to schools for nonprofit groups in Ontario.
  4. The National Main Street Center’s research on the impacts of COVID on small businesses across the U.S.
  5. The Nehemiah Initiative
  6. Updating the social contract around historic places of faith, by Graham Singh
  7. Hand over Canada’s white churches to the charities who need them, by Graham Singh