National Main Street Conference

This is the second in a series of posts on our experience attending the National Main Street Conference in Detroit.

I had the pleasure of attending the 2014 National Main Street Conference recently, in Detroit, Michigan. Several Albertans were there with me, including four people representing two of our main street communities: the Town of Olds and the City of Camrose. The (U.S.) Main Street Program has been operating in the United States for over 35 years now. As Alberta continues to revitalizes our its Main Street program, we continue to learn from the American counterpart.

The Canadians after the opening plenary session. Each american state formed a delegation, so we formed one of our own.
The Canadians after the opening plenary session. Each american state formed a delegation, so we formed one of our own.

In the late 1970s, the (U.S.) National Trust for Historic Preservation was exploring ways to facilitate the preservation of historic downtowns. All over North America, businesses and residents had been leaving downtown and moving to new suburban neighbourhoods and consequently many historic places were neglected and being abandoned. The National Trust realized that solving the problem would not be as simple as restoring dilapidated buildings; restoring historic commercial areas meant bringing people back down town. It launched a three-year Main Street Project in 1977 to study ways to revitalise declining downtowns. The main street pilot project was so successful that it was made a permanent program in 1980 and was soon helping hundreds of communities throughout the United States revitalise their historic commercial areas.

A Main Street project works by pursuing four equally important activities: organizing business owners and residents around a common purpose; economic restructuring or strengthening the existing businesses while also diversifying the mixture of business types; designing a functional and pleasant streetscape that highlights the authentic historic places; and promotion, or rekindling a sense of pride in the downtown. Economic restructuring ensures that businesses are successful and the Main Street is able to pay its own way. Design ensures that Main Street has a functional and pleasant streetscape—built around authentic historic buildings—and creates an inviting place that people want to work, live and play in. Promotion ensures that the community (and visitors from away) know what the area has to offer and feel welcome. Organization ensures that business owners, residents and other stakeholders take shared responsibility for the success of their downtown.

The keynote by Donovan Rypkema presented a straightforward and compelling explanation of how the program works and why it works so well. (Mr. Rypkema is an internationally regarded specialist in the economics of historic preservation.) He argued that Main Street is the most effective, sustainable and “cheapest” economic development strategy he’s come across, for historic areas or otherwise. This is because the four pillars of a Main Street align with the four factors that set the value of real estate.

Mr. Rypkema compared the four pillars of Main Street (design, organization, economic restructuring and promotion) with the four forces of value: economic, physical, social, and political. Mr. Rypkema talked about how Main Street works because each of the four points is aimed at increasing a corresponding area of value. When an area restructures economically by ensuring a mixture of complementary businesses, it increases the number of visitors and therefore the profitability of each business and consequently the value of the real estate.

A Main Street Program adds to the physical value of property when it restores dilapidated historic places and otherwise upgrades the streetscape. It adds to the social value of property by improving how the community feels about the area, by increasing local pride in a historic area. Finally, it adds to the political value of property when the range of possible, profitable and acceptable uses increases. He calls it the most successful economic restructuring programs ever tried in the United States. (On a somewhat related note, Mr. Rypkema joked that Main Street was working on smart growth and new urbanism before these planning philosophies were proposed.)

The best part about the conference was the opportunity to learn from peers in the Main Street movement. There were excellent sessions around all the four points. I attended lots of sessions on using social media effectively (big surprise) and community organization. I highly suggest that anyone interested in these ideas look into the National Main Street Center. I look forward to perhaps attending next year’s in Atlanta, Georgia.

Written by: Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer.

Nine in a line – a vanished skyline

Prairie Sentinels

The tall silhouette of a wooden grain elevator on the horizon once symbolized rural landscape across the prairies. “Against open space,” in the words of distinguished American photographer Frank Gohlke, “grain elevators were the presence against which that emptiness could be measured.”

A long row of eight elevators had been built at Vulcan by 1924 and provided a backdrop for this harvest scene at Vulcan. (Glenbow Archives, ND-8-218).
A long row of eight elevators had been built at Vulcan by 1924 and provided a backdrop for this harvest scene at Vulcan. (Glenbow Archives, ND-8-218).

Early Elevator Row

In 1891, the Calgary and Edmonton Railway built Siding 19, soon to be named Leduc, on the west side of its mainline. The length of the siding—long enough to build a row of six elevators—showed the railway’s faith in the district’s grain growing potential. By 1905 a row of three elevators lent a vertical silhouette across the tracks from the station. The first grain company to build at a new siding tried to choose the best position for attracting customers, and for loading cars with the greatest ease. Each elevator had sufficient space on the siding to load two grain cars. Elevator construction along the Calgary and Edmonton railway set a pattern followed across Alberta as main lines and branch lines slowly spread their reach.

As elevator rows developed they created a varied sky line: there was considerable difference in size and shape of elevators built from the 1890s to the 1920s. After 1920 many of the early variants were replaced and grain companies built traditional elevators with a gable roof and a gable roofed cupola on top. Wood clad elevators were almost always painted CPR red, and what differentiated each company’s elevator was its name (and its logo, if it had one) painted high up on the walls, emblazoned in white along with the name of the town. In contrast, metal clad elevators were galvanized or painted white.

Elevators Everywhere

Competition between the grain companies resulted in the rapid emergence of rows of elevators at the most significant grain delivery points. By 1911 there were 142 sidings with grain elevators, and 43 of them had three or more elevators. Carstairs, High River and Nanton, along with Edmonton and Calgary, had five elevators, while Westaskiwin had six. Eight years later, in 1919, the total number of elevator delivery points in the province totalled 334, of which 150 had three or more elevators. Barons had emerged as the point with the longest row of elevators, with eight, followed by Nanton with seven. A number of towns had six: Blackie, Bow Island, Carmangay, Chinook, Claresholm, Cluny, Gleichen, Granum, Magrath, Oyen, Provost, Vulcan, and Youngstown. Edmonton and Calgary also had six. The points with the largest elevator capacities were mainly in the wheat-growing area of the southern part of the province, but by the 1940s as farming thrived in the Peace River country, impressive rows evolved at Sexsmith and Grimshaw.  Vulcan in southern Alberta however, holds the record for the longest row—12 elevators in 1956.

The elevator row became a towering beacon for Alberta’s growing hamlets, villages, and towns with bustling commercial main streets and residential areas. Through the 1950s into the 1960s a long unbroken row symbolized prosperity. A town with five elevators rather than three had a more lucrative tax base and better services, all of which could be traced back to its life line—the railway.

Barons, 1913. (Glenbow Archives, NA-2059-27)
Barons, 1913. (Glenbow Archives, NA-2059-27)

Elevator Consolidation Begins

From the 1960s, as paved highways increasingly linked Alberta’s major towns with hamlets and rural districts, and one railway station after another closed in smaller centres and on branch lines that were being abandoned, farmers chose to take their business to larger centres. Farmers benefitted from the competition between elevators at larger centres, and grain companies closed more isolated grain buying points due to loss of business, the threat of further branch line closure and changes in car allocation rules. Grain companies consolidated their elevators making for longer rows at fewer points. Towns that had secured multiple elevators flourished; the more elevators in a town, the greater its prestige and the better its prospects for business and further development seemed to be.

All the Colours of the Rainbow

It was in the 1960s that elevator row began to take on the appearance that many of us remember. The grain companies repainted their elevators when the CPR red began to fade. First came white, adopted by the United Grain Growers. A splash of colour marked the beginning of modern company branding. First came white, adopted by the United Grain Growers. Pioneer Grain Company first painted the shingled roofs of their elevators yellow, and then in 1962 went for bright orange on the elevator walls, complemented by yellow roofs. The story goes that on the Victoria Day weekend in 1962 as a Pioneer engineer and his wife toured the countryside, she suggested orange (the colour of her pants that day) would cheer up the appearance of the elevators on the landscape. The company agreed to the experiment and the first dazzling orange elevators on prairie rows surprised everyone. Federal Grain adopted white by the time it took over Alberta Pacific Grain (1943) Ltd. in 1968. The Alberta Wheat Pool adopted a turquoise green colour, which slowly dominated the rows after 1972 as AWP took over Federal Grain in 1972, painting all the white Federal elevators turquoise-green as well. Parrish and Heimbecker adopted a mustard colour in 1976.

The Fall of the Sentinel

More change came to elevator row as the grain companies began to replace ageing elevators with larger single and double composite elevator designs in the 1970s. The sky line began to transform as holes began to appear in the great Alberta rows. By the 1980s elevator row was gap-toothed. Grain companies rapidly consolidated business on sidings where there was enough room to fill more grain cars at one time. Then in 1995 the federal government ended the Crow Rate that subsidized freight rates to the port terminals, and deregulated the railways in 1996. The economy of scale changed. In 1997 there were still major rows of elevator complexes that sometimes included an older elevator as an annex: six at Hussar, six at McGrath, six at Sexsmith, five at Standard, four at Arrowood, and four at Champion and finally seven at Warner. The same year, scores of unwanted elevators, many remnants of once proud rows began to fall. Finally, at the turn of the 21st century, operating grain elevator rows were completely replaced by large inland concrete terminal silo-style structures. Warner is an aberration: with six of its original traditional elevators (forming four elevator complex facilities) still standing and used to handle the local mustard crop, it is a significant legacy of a vanished skyline.

Written by: Judy Larmour.