What should a small town do when the big factory closes, and the original reason for its existence starts to fade into a historical footnote? It’s a problem that affects all Canadian cities, but one that especially threatens municipalities under 200,000, as the shift from manufacturing to information technologies continues. These and other towns can’t afford to make strategic mistakes. The competition for capital and highly-educated workers is enormous, and transnational.
In the case of three adjacent southern Ontario cities — Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, the problem is especially acute and its outcome uncertain. Their mixed agricultural and car-based manufacturing industries face rationalization and global competition on an unprecedented scale.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, the CanGro cannery shut down in mid-2008 due to competition from China and South Africa, putting 190 long-term employees out of work. Despite last-minute efforts to save it, CanGro’s equipment was sold off. Pickups drove off daily with fruit bins snapped up at 20 cents on the dollar; the 10-hectare site now awaits redevelopment by its new owner.
The negative spin-off of cumulative plant closings hurts local fruit growers and third-party services like trucking, produce packers and commodity suppliers, all down the distribution chain, as well as shrinking the town’s tax base. In most cases there’s no second chance.
The ripple effect of local hospital closures and other provincial initiatives aimed at centralizing regional services puts even more pressure on nearby St. Catharines. With a population of 130,000, it’s the largest of the three towns and the easiest target for mandated cutbacks.
These cities are on their own: with pressures like these, they must reinvent themselves, or wither.
In this new era, mayors and staff make the rounds with PowerPoint presentations calculated to entice investors. After strenuous sales efforts, St. Catharines convinced several Finnish tech companies to locate there in 2006. The question is, what are these towns selling? And what are investors really buying?
While they are close neighbours, sharing the clement weather of the Niagara Peninsula and common origins in the 19th-century Industrial Age — as well as the administrative mantle of the Niagara Regional Municipality — the three little cities under review have distinctly different strategies in plotting a future course for themselves and prospective stakeholders. Their ultimate success depends on whether the international marketplace buys the vision they’re selling of the next small-town heaven.
Niagara-on-the-Lake: The New Old Town
Niagara-on-the-Lake, population 15,000, was a historically-significant Great Lake port and colonial capital prior to the War of 1812, when the town was systematically torched by American troops. Called Newark, then Niagara, its solid Georgian housing stock was rebuilt after hostilities ended. But the colonial authorities learned the martial lesson, and invested their hard-won Early Industrial capital in more secure York, renamed Toronto.
Niagara-on-the-Lake languished in obscurity until the mid-1970s when historian Peter Stokes and schoolteacher Laura Dodson rescued it.
“Laura Dodson’s contribution to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s preservation was immense,” says Julian Smith, a practicing architect and newly-appointed Director of the School of Restoration Arts at Willowbank.
Along with a posse of industrious elves called Gentrify, Second Home, Boutique Winery, and B & B, Dodson and Stokes’ heritage activism created a town with no condo towers or malls.
“I feel Laura’s spirit here everywhere,” says Smith, pointing to the Greek Revival tulip-wood columns, which frame a green estate that hasn’t changed much in 200 years.
“Laura and Peter were visionaries,” says Smith. “Like Jane Jacobs, they didn’t accept established International Modernist ideas of planning and design. Today Niagara-on-the-Lake is maybe the only place in Canada where a local vernacular architecture is emerging, self-consciously expressed. It will be interesting to see how our young people design new buildings in the future, after absorbing the lessons of this town’s intact, 19th-century neighbourhoods.” (Check out RAW Design’s take on a city of the future at this link.)
Smith says the town is overlooked because of Modernism’s fixation with buildings as objects, rather than as connections to a streetscape.
Taking a chair in his green room office — an expressionist wonderland of peeling wallpapers that records Ontario’s decorating styles from 1834 to 1990 — the MIT graduate and restoration architect distinguishes Willowbank’s philosophy from post-modern concerns with splashy design statements — and the notion of “planning” itself.
“With Modernism, architects design and developers build-there’s a deep split between theory and practice. It inevitably focuses on the Object, an isolated monument that looks great in Rizzoli coffee-table books, but is removed from context and use. Canada’s traditional main streets were not designed as objects, but to serve as corridors of daily social experience. It’s not about how they look in a black-and-white art photo; but how the streetscape actually functions.”
The town’s mayor, Gary Burroughs, agrees that his constituency is opposed to condo towers and other symbols of “inevitable” modernity.
“We see our town’s future promoting ‘quality of life.’ Environmental tourism, using our public green spaces for running and biking trails. Everyone wants quality of life today.”
Mayor Burroughs’ views on the role of the contemporary small town are set out on this website, along with sometimes contrary ideas from the mayors of St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. His notion that a town can stubbornly resist global development trends, even opt out of them to set its own agenda for the future, needs to be examined further. Surely there are economic and social limits to civic autonomy.
How much freedom does a small town have today, in a world that is otherwise interconnected at so many levels?
For the complete article, please check out our September-October issue. To read Larry Frolick’s interviews with the mayors of Niagara Falls, St. Catherines and Niagra on the Lake, click here.