Striking a Balance for Alberta’s Nonrenewable Archaeological Resources
For Eric Damkjar, Head of Archaeology, what the Archaeological Survey Section of the Historic Resources Management Branch does is akin to running a museum. Not a traditional museum, composed of artifacts encased in glass boxes under lock and key. Instead, archaeological specimens are scattered “across the landscape in the province, and [we]’re trying to look after those specimens,” reflects Damkjar.
The Archaeological Survey Section has a mandate to protect and to interpret the province’s archaeological heritage. This necessitates striking a balance between protecting archaeological sites through regulating and redirecting development, and unlocking the knowledge of Alberta’s prehistoric past through excavation projects that, ironically, are triggered by development.
Archaeological Survey maintains a database of some 40,000 archaeological sites in Alberta that includes known historic resources as well as lands that are “highly probable to have historic resources.” About half of those places have been further identified as high priority sites requiring protection. The provincial government relies on its relationships with different industry sectors, such as oil and gas, to become aware of potential risks to these sites. Those proposing development projects must check whether the potentially affected lands are included in the provincial database of sensitive areas, and if so, proponents must send Archaeological Survey their development plans. Damkjar and a team of archaeologists review the plans and decide if there is a need for a Historical Resources Impact Assessment (HRIA), which will recommend a course of action.
Archaeological Survey’s preferred action is for the proponents of development projects to voluntarily change their plans to avoid sensitive sites. When impact is unavoidable, the department prescribes excavation. Damkjar’s team then reviews the work, and determines whether the knowledge generated from excavation has compensated for the site’s destruction. But in some cases, Damkjar says, “the Act gives us the discretion [to say], you can’t develop that site, it’s too important to [the people of] Alberta.”
An example of the excavation option can be seen in the town of Hardisty. Today, many pipelines that are built in the province converge there. Twelve hundred years ago, people drove bison into a buffalo pound near Hardisty. Next to that site, they processed hides and meat. This area, so rich in archaeological significance, is today heavily impacted by pipelines: one was put in last year, one is currently under construction, and another one is proposed. “Bit by bit,” Damkjar states, “these pipelines are eating into these sites.” The proponents of the pipelines, constrained by geography (namely, a nearby river) and unable to avoid impacting the sites, have been required by Archaeological Survey to perform a great deal of excavation work. “It’s turning into a very interesting site,” notes Damkjar, yielding a glimpse of a culture that archaeologists call Avonlea.
Archaeological Survey works closely with other sections within the Historic Resources Management Branch, such as Historic Places Stewardship and Aboriginal Heritage, to identify and address potential risks to sites. The section is working to build relationships, too, with First Nations. “Obviously, prehistoric archaeology in Alberta is very relevant and close to the heart of First Nations people,” notes Damkjar. This realization has led Damkjar deep into Treaty 8 territory, into the forests of northwestern Alberta and the homeland of the Dene Tha’. Exploring campsites, Damkjar went with a group of Elders to places where they had lived as young people. “You could see the remains of their camp from the early half of the twentieth century, but right at the same site, there were prehistoric tools there, as well. So people had lived there for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. For them, and for us, it was quite exciting.”
That bridge between past and present is just one of the reasons why preserving prehistoric archaeology is so important. Archaeological historic resources, Damkjar reminds us, are nonrenewable—once they are destroyed, they are gone forever. However, when a historic resource is successfully avoided by proponents of development, and hence preserved, Damkjar points out that “you’re leaving the information that could be learned in the ground.”
The decisions that the Archaeological Survey Section makes are sometimes a leap of faith, says Damkjar. It’s not guaranteed that a protected site won’t be impacted, someday, by human activity; it is also not guaranteed that someone, eventually, will unlock the wealth of information that a protected sites holds for us. These are the challenges of planning for the future, notes Damkjar, but in the context of knowing that nonrenewable archaeological resources will continue to be threatened by development, the Province’s responsibility is to do what it can to protect them.
Matthew Francis, Manager of Municipal Heritage Services, describes his role this way: “I manage all of the Government of Alberta’s work with municipalities to protect their historic places.” One focus of his job is running the Alberta Main Street Program. The other is leading the Municipal Heritage Partnership Program (MHPP). Both are done with the help of two Municipal Heritage Services Officers.
The Municipal Heritage Partnership Program was established in 2006 to give municipalities across Alberta the training and tools to start up and run their own heritage conservation programs in a way that “represents the best practice of what the Historical Resources Act requires.”
Matthew, who joined the branch the year before, has worked with this program from its start. He explains: “Municipalities in Alberta had been empowered since 1978 to designate their own historic places, but most of them didn’t know about that. Only a handful of communities—Calgary, Edmonton, Banff, Red Deer—had ever designated something at the local level. [The others thought,] ‘This is something we have to go to the Province [to do]’.”
“So the first several years were really about building awareness. I spent almost 100 days on the road in 2006 going all over Alberta—small towns and cities, and everywhere. We were able to tell them, this can be done locally around the council table, and through a bylaw, and we gave them the background on that, and the training, the tools.”
MHPP staff members lead workshops for local government staff, volunteers, and sometimes elected officials as well, to train them in how to protect locally significant historic places by using recognized tools. The main identification tools are surveys: research projects that gather basic historical and architectural information on possible historic resources. Conducting a survey can be a first step toward developing a comprehensive heritage conservation program. MHPP also offers workshops on heritage inventories: projects that helps a community identify places of outstanding local significance and develop a deep understanding of each place that will help the municipality determine how to protect and conserve it.
The Alberta Historical Resources Foundation offers matching grants to municipalities in Alberta that are undertaking surveys or heritage inventories or that are developing heritage management plans. MHPP staff often help municipalities craft viable survey or inventory projects that are likely to be funded by the Foundation. The MHPP also helps to evaluate grant applications, making funding recommendations to the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Sometimes staff must overcome scepticism or even hostility of those who think heritage conservation is anti-progress. Matthew responds: “A lot of people when they think about their historic buildings, they think about the past, and we’re more concerned about saying, does that place have a future? That’s the conversation that we’re trying to have.”
Ideally, each municipality will first establish what the MHPP calls a Heritage Advisory Board (HAB), although it may have a different name locally. If the local government decides to seriously pursue the conservation of its historic resources, MHPP staff will meet with the board and others to explain that process and make sure they understand the three key aspects of evaluation: eligibility, significance, and integrity. Heritage consultants—historians, planners, or others with a conservation-related background—typically do the survey or inventory work under the direction of the advisory board.
As a central part of this work, the consultant will produce a document called a Statement of Significance for each historic place, which describes why the community values the place and what about it needs protection to preserve its significance. The HAB must be able to assess the quality of each Statement of Significance, making sure that each document accurately describes the significance and integrity of the historic resource(s) discussed. The HAB will make a recommendation on designation to the municipal council.
“Our place is not to intervene in [designation decisions],” Matthew says. “Municipalities in Alberta can designate whatever they want. They’re empowered to do that. It’s the community that has the local knowledge, and that’s what we’re trying to draw out.” But, ideally, the local government will learn how to make good decisions about heritage designation—decisions that are consistent across the community and also consistent with the best practices that are in use throughout Alberta. Municipalities may also establish their own regulations for the protection of their designated historic places.
“I really love working with the Heritage Advisory Boards.” Matthew reflects. “They’re volunteers for the most part, and they’re there for a reason—it’s usually because they have some sort of personal connection to these historic places that are meaningful to them in their community. A really enjoyable part of the work is getting to hear some of those stories.”
Today, MHPP staff members usually work with a municipality by invitation, although sometimes they’ll contact a local government proactively. This may be initiated by inquiries from private citizens concerned about protecting a specific historic place. When that happens, the MHPP staff member will urge them to contact their local government, but then will follow up with government staff to discuss the option of historic resource designation to protect the resource. “And from there we’ll say, ‘Have you thought more comprehensively about taking a look at all your historic places?’”
The annual Municipal Heritage Forum, a project of Municipal Heritage Services, supports these efforts. “Before 2007 people doing heritage conservation locally in different communities had very little connection with each other,” Matthew recalls. The first forum in 2007, called a Summit for Stakeholders, had about 40 participants. “It was basically just bringing the people together and giving them some information,” Matthew says. “But [we saw that] it’s the sharing of information [that’s important]. It’s really great to see the local knowledge increase and for that information to be shared peer-to-peer.” The forum now attracts about 125 attendees each year, and has become an eagerly anticipated event for heritage professionals and advocates across Alberta.
The Municipal Heritage Partnership Program has now worked with more than 100 municipalities, and it continues to help “repeat customers” as well as communities that are new to heritage conservation. The MHPP keeps evolving, along with the communities it serves. “We’ve worked with communities now that have been through the awareness cycle, so they know how to do [heritage designation], and they’re taking a high degree of ownership for this, which is what we always intended,” Matthew explains. The next step, he says, is helping them integrate heritage conservation into other urban planning initiatives—“not [treating it] like an appendage or an afterthought. Two of the flood-impacted communities we work with—High River and Medicine Hat—are working on major initiatives with their downtown planning, and I think they are leading the way on some of this.”
Municipalities have evaluated well over 1,000 historic places across Alberta since the program’s beginnings, “and that’s the number we keep an eye on,” Matthew says. “Not all of those places have been or will be designated or be protected,” he adds, “but at least they’re known. We know about them, and the communities know about them—and that’s really what matters most.”
As Manager of the Historic Places Research and Designation Program, Brenda Manweiler heads what may be the unit with the greatest variety of responsibilities within the Historic Resources Management Branch. Brenda joined the branch as a Municipal Heritage Services Officer in 2009, after working for museums, British Columbia’s Heritage Branch, and Parks Canada. She has been in her current position since April 2013.
In addition, her group provides ongoing advice on how best to address the impact on historic structures (that are not designated) in cases where they may be affected by development in Alberta. This is part of an integrated regulatory function that Alberta Culture administers for the preservation of historic resources.
Members of her staff provide research services to many of the historic sites operated by the Historic Sites and Museums Branch of Alberta Culture. Their services help, for example, to develop exhibits at these sites.
As well, this unit is responsible for the Foundation’s Heritage Markers Program. This program supports the development of heritage markers that promote awareness of the historic people, places, events, and themes that have defined the character of the province. The markers are ideally sized for placement within parks, along trails or sidewalks, and in other community locales. Once the topic of a new marker has been selected, unit staff members develop the text, select photographs, and are responsible for coordinating the design, fabrication, and installation of the markers.
The unit includes the coordinators for two other programs, as well:
What kind of historic places are “out there” in Alberta?
The Coordinator of the Alberta Heritage Survey Program oversees a database of information about non-archaeological historic resources across the province. The Alberta Heritage Survey was established in the mid-1970s, has information dating back to 1971, and is being continually updated. Entries about individual resources include photographs, details of architectural characteristics, history, designation status, and location. This information comes from heritage surveys of neighbourhoods or building types, many of which have been commissioned by municipal governments and conducted by consultants and heritage groups. Today there are almost 100,000 individual resources documented on a searchable online database.
How do Geographical Features Get Names?
The Coordinator of the Geographical Names Program manages the process to formally name geographical features in Alberta. Names are chosen in accordance with international standards and guidelines, with preference usually given to names that have a demonstrated local and/or historical usage. The coordinator’s work includes communicating with governmental organizations from the municipal to international level, disseminating geographical names information from both popular and scholarly sources, maintaining records, and conducting related field and archival research. All this leads to making a recommendation on a name to the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation board and the Minister of Alberta Culture.
How do places get designated?
The Historic Places Research and Designation Program’s largest responsibility, however, is the Provincial Historic Resources Designation Program, which identifies, evaluates, and designates those historic resources that are most significant to the province as a whole. Resources eligible for consideration include structures, archaeological sites, palaeontological resources, and other works of humans or nature that are of value for their historic, cultural, natural, scientific, or aesthetic interest.
Once a resource is designated, its owner cannot destroy, disturb, alter, restore, or repair it without written approval from the provincial government. But the owner gains tangible benefits, including access to conservation grants and technical advice, and the intangible benefit of knowing that a valued property will be preserved and protected into the future. Currently there are some 360 sites protected as Provincial Historic Resources in Alberta.
Owners or advocates interested in obtaining heritage designation for a property often start by contacting Brenda for advice. She’ll ask questions to determine if the property is eligible for consideration, and to gauge whether designation should be pursued at the provincial or municipal level, or both. Occasionally one of the branch’s Heritage Conservation Advisers will make a site visit to answer property owners’ questions and assess the potential eligibility of their property for designation.
Once an application is received, Brenda administers the evaluation process. The Designation Committee, made up of her staff plus staff of the Heritage Conservation Advisory Services unit, meets about every six weeks to confirm the eligibility of new applications and to monitor the progress for sites currently under study. The Designation Committee works to determine if the site has heritage significance (according to five specific evaluation criteria), and a Heritage Conservation Adviser studies the site to determine if it retains enough integrity to communicate that significance. Much archival and onsite research is required to complete an in-depth evaluation. If the committee recommends designation and that is approved at a higher level, the owner is informed and his or her support is obtained, a designation order is signed, and the site is listed on the Alberta Register of Historic Places, an online database of all designated historic resources in Alberta.
Benefits of Designation
Why would owners want their properties designated? Brenda explains: “They believe that they have a property that’s of significance. They want to keep it around so that future generations can enjoy it and benefit from it, so that it can continue to be a part of the communities that they live in. Also, the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation provides conservation grants to property owners of designated resources, which serves as a fantastic incentive for people to conserve their property for the long term.”
There have been about five new applications since Brenda started in her position nearly a year ago, so she estimates that five to ten per year would be the norm. Her team is currently working through the evaluation process for approximately twenty sites.
So Brenda’s job involves lots of paperwork and administrative management. But she never loses sight of what it’s all for: “So many people work in this field because they feel passionately about the buildings, and I’m certainly no different there,” she says. “But for me, so much of it comes down to the people: the applicants, the owners, the community members. The public is so passionate about the sites that they so want to see conserved. I love being able to work with the public to help them reach their goals of contributing to a legacy for Alberta.”
Anna Curtis heads up the Historic Resource Management Branch’s Land Use Planning Section. If proposed development projects in the province could potentially impact historic resources, the Historical Resources Act allows the Minister of Alberta Culture to require the project proponent to perform studies or other work before their projects can proceed. “What we do is coordinate [the regulatory approval process],” Anna explains.
As Anna puts it, the Land Use Planning Section is on the “front line” of the Historic Resources Management Branch when it comes to communicating these requirements to the proponents of development. Land Use Planning receives plans from proponents and determines which part of Alberta Culture—Archaeological Survey, Aboriginal Heritage, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, or Historic Places Stewardship—might need to review the plans to assess if approval should be conditional, requiring that the proponent first complete a study or undertake some action to mitigate the potential impact to a historic resource. If so, Land Use Planning then “translates” the technical language into a regulatory order for the proponent. As Anna puts it: “We aren’t the authorities, we don’t make those decisions [about how best to mitigate or offset the effects of development]—what we do is coordinate what everybody else says, and put it into a format that is both an order to the proponent and [something] the proponent will understand.”
Coordinating the Protection of Historic Resources
Because Land Use Planning acts as a central coordinator, the different sections of the branch can concentrate on their specialties without needing to worry about presenting a comprehensive requirement for the proponent to follow: Land Use Planning synthesizes the different sections’ points of view. Anna explains, “Managing the project is what we’re all about. We’re the central point. The archaeologists don’t necessarily have to know what the palaeontologists want—that’s our job.” She has been the Head for not quite two years. Previously, she worked at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, doing land use planning in palaeontology. For the last ten years, she worked with the federal government in an Aboriginal relations and consultation capacity. All four areas that Land Use Planning covers (archaeology, palaeontology, Aboriginal traditional use, and historic use [structures]), Anna has covered in her personal background—meaning that she’s well-equipped to head up her section’s mandate to synthesize and communicate the different sections’ requirements.
Heritage Conservation and Development are (usually) Compatible
Because Land Use Planning is on the front line, the section also handles many of the questions that come in from the public about the branch’s work. Sometimes citizens call because they want a particular project in their area stopped. “There’s a lot of concern with certain types of developments, such as gravel pits” says Anna, giving an example, “…and a lot of people don’t want those developments near them in their area. So a lot of times we’ll get calls, with people wanting to know if we can stop developments. That is not the Historic Resources Management Branch’s role, Anna remarks. “That’s not what the [Historical Resources] Act is for. It’s not to stop development. It’s [about] how do we preserve and protect [historic] resources while allowing development to happen.”
Occasionally, though, a particular historic resource is deemed far too valuable to allow development to impact it. This was the case with the Quarry of the Ancestors, a significant stone-quarrying and tool-making site for pre-contact native peoples, situated in the middle of the oil sands. “It’s a big deal when you remove part of an oil sands lease out of production,” Anna notes.
But most of the time, rather than putting a halt to development, the Historic Resources Management Branch makes sure that studies are done so that information can be obtained about the site before development that may damage the historic resource is allowed to move forward. With all the development happening in the province, the branch is busy. The Land Use Planning Section helps the branch to stay ahead in several ways.
Anna’s section works with municipalities, so that their administrations understand what kinds of developments need to be reviewed. They also work closely with other Government of Alberta regulatory ministries and, of course, with different industry sectors, to identify projects with significant potential to impact historic resources. “We’re looking for those developments that are going to have a big impact,” Anna says. “For instance, we do a lot of work with…Alberta Transportation; they are big on gravel pits, roads, bridges—those are big projects in the province.”
Every Project is Unique
Land Use Planning also must keep informed about how different types of development affect historic resources differently. A pipeline that goes for hundreds of kilometres, Anna points out, causes a disturbance that is “long and linear. That’s a whole different thing than when you look at something like a gravel pit, which is more constrained in terms of area, but its impact can be quite extensive in terms of historic resources.”
Changing technologies also lead to different types of concerns. For example, open pit mining in the oil sands is now joined by the in situ process—using a series of wells placed in a row that inject steam into the earth and force the oil out of the sand. The impact of these wells on historic resources is wholly different.
The branch also sees “ebbs and flows in these kinds of developments with the commodity markets,” Anna says. When the demand for a particular commodity comes back strong after a downturn, often the technology for extracting that commodity has advanced. Consequently, Land Use Planning needs learn what kind of impact that these new technologies might have on historic resources. “We have to be flexible” in order to keep ahead of those changes, Anna says. “It’s a challenge because it’s a constantly moving target,” Anna remarks, “but it’s an interesting challenge.”
It’s not just heavy industry that the Land Use Planning Section has to take into account. The branch is currently seeing a great “increase in urban areas and the loss of native prairie, and a lot of that native prairie can have good potential [for containing historic resources].”
The Listing of Historic Resources
The Land Use Planning Section also assists to ensure that the Listing of Historic Resources is an up-to-date and effective tool for the branch. The listing is the provincial government’s database, identifying lands that contain or are believed to contain historic sites, including archaeological and paleontological sites, Aboriginal traditional use sites, and historic structures. “The HRMB updates [the list] every six months according to the work that’s been done,” Anna explains. If an excavated site is found not to be as significant as previously supposed, it may be given a lower priority ranking. This gives the branch a heads-up that other proponents in the same area might not need to perform extensive excavations. As new sites are discovered in the process of doing studies in an area, they are added to the list (and if research makes it clear that a site is of greater significance than previously thought, it can be given a higher ranking), so the branch will be aware that any development in the area is likely to require more in-depth studies before it can proceed. “The various sections use these studies to inform the branch’s decision-making process,” Anna says, and to be “conscious and mindful of the status of resources in the provinces. We don’t ask for studies for the sake of asking for studies.”
Alberta’s Historic Resources are Well Protected
“There is such good, strong regulatory oversight for historic resources in Alberta. It’s some of the strongest legislation in the country,” Anna concludes. “History is something that people always think of as an abstract, and this is tangible history. It’s satisfying to me to know that tangible history is not being lost—that we are making every effort to ensure that the most important sites are being protected and that we are extracting information.”
Plus, Anna reminds us, technology changes not only for extractive industries but also for those who unlock the secrets of our past. “Maybe ten years from now people will have different technology” with which to study historic resources, Anna says. “Suddenly we’ll have a whole other level of information that we didn’t have before.”
The Heritage Preservation Partnership Program of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation is the provincial funding program focused on helping individuals and organizations fund heritage initiatives. As Grant Program Coordinator, Carina Naranjilla keeps that program on track.
The Alberta Historical Resources Foundation is a lottery-funded agency within Alberta Culture. The Heritage Preservation Partnership Program is one of the Foundation’s three grant programs. Heritage Preservation Partnership grants are awarded in five categories: Historic Resources Conservation, Transportation/Industrial Artifact Conservation, Heritage Awareness, Publications, and Research. There are also two scholarships: the Roger Soderstrom Scholarship and the Bob Etherington Heritage Trades Scholarship.
At the close of the twice-yearly application deadlines, Carina logs the applications, then distributes them to the appropriate subject experts within the Historic Resources Management Branch to develop informed recommendations to the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
“I’m not an archaeologist, a historian or conservation expert … so I rely on these people surrounding me in the branch for their technical expertise,” she explains. “My job is to coordinate with them, really putting all their expertise together. I set the timelines. We meet before they submit the technical evaluations to me. Then I edit [their evaluations], ensure the recommendations align with the funding policies and grants budget, check the accuracy of the financial information—a lot of detailed stuff.”
She emphasizes how important these evaluations are: “There are a lot a good projects, but you only have so much funds to distribute, so the challenge is to make sure that we are being fair and…when we deny an application or give reduced funding … we are able to provide the rationale” to explain that decision.
She consults with the Executive Director of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation on the evaluations and recommendations, and finalises the recommendations that go to the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation’s board for review. She also assists “in the overall operation of the Foundation … administrative, financial, stuff like that.”
The Foundation’s board meets four times a year, and decisions about these awards are made at two of those meetings. Carina organizes the board meetings, along with managing other board interaction: “I look after drafting the agenda, coordinating the logistics, coordinating the materials and making sure they’re distributed on time—everything pertaining to the board meeting.” The two-day meetings, held in different locations around the province, always include a tour of the host community and opportunities for board members to meet with local heritage stakeholders. Carina particularly enjoys this outreach and the chance to see the local impact of grant-funded projects.
She also manages two other programs of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation:
There are the Heritage Awards, presented every two years in the categories of Heritage Conservation, Heritage Awareness, Municipal Heritage Preservation, and Outstanding Achievement. Carina oversees the application and review process, and plans the awards ceremony. “It’s really fun to organize,” she says. She also collaborates with the Communications Branch, which generates media coverage to encourage nominations and publicize the award decisions. The next ceremony, scheduled for October 16, 2014, will be held in conjunction with the annual Municipal Heritage Forum for the first time. Carina anticipates that this will bring even greater attendance and attention.
“So, you’ve got to be organized,” Carina concludes about her multifaceted position. She has been with the Historic Resources Management Branch since 2000, and in her present position since 2009, after earning a master’s degree in industrial engineering and working as a Business Analyst in her home country, the Philippines, then holding diverse administrative positions in private industry and government in Edmonton.
While not a heritage specialist herself, Carina says she’s continually learning from her colleagues. For example, when she has time, she likes to “tag along” with the Heritage Conservation Advisers on site visits to view the buildings and projects they’re working on. “It’s great because you collaborate with all these people,” she says. “That’s the fun part of my job.”
Alireza Farrokhi, Head of Conservation and Construction Services in the Historic Resources Management Branch, describes his work this way: “My unit is the operational arm of our branch. Other program areas protect historic resources and promote heritage conservation by designation, research, and advisory services to municipalities and private property owners; they tell how heritage conservation should be done. We are the group that does it.” Like other program areas, Conservation and Construction Services follows Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canadaclosely.
Stewards of Provincially Owned Historic Resources
Conservation and Construction Services is responsible for “the heritage conservation, maintenance, and environmental management at all designated Provincial Historic Resources that are owned by the province.” That includes more than 50 restored historic structures, 14 operating historic sites, and 70 “mothballed” (vacant but stabilized) historic structures located at five sites not currently in use. The unit also collaborates with other government ministries—such as Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resources Development; Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation; and Alberta Infrastructure (the property manager for all government-owned buildings)—if heritage conservation work is required as part of a larger project.
The seven-member unit (which includes three Heritage Conservation Technologists, a Restoration Foreman, and two Restoration Craftsmen) is currently working on numerous projects throughout the province. Staff members once covered specific geographic areas, but are now more likely to be assigned projects based on their expertise. Members of the unit make up the crew for smaller projects. Larger ones are contracted out, with unit staff overseeing the project planning and management.
Restoring and Conserving
The unit’s ongoing workload ranges from conducting multiyear, multistructure restoration projects to addressing specific conservation problems, including some “that come out of the blue.” One staff member works full time at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton, restoring buildings one by one. Another has been restoring the log structures at the Perrenoud Homestead near Cochrane. Members of the unit have also worked recently at the Rutherford House in Edmonton, the Stephansson House near Markerville, and Victoria Settlement near Smokey Lake.
Heritage and Environmental Conservation
Alireza’s current projects involve restoring “environmentally challenged” industrial sites. He and a colleague are currently working at three that were critical to Alberta’s history: Turner Valley Gas Works, Alberta’s first natural gas plant and a key player in the creation of the province’s oil and gas industry; Greenhill Mine Complex, a historic coal-mining operation in the Crowsnest Pass; and the Bitumount Site north of Fort McMurray, the birthplace of oil sands extraction technology.
“Back then, their focus was solely on energy extraction. They were not really concerned about the environment,” he says. “But now these are areas that we need to clean up with heritage conservation considerations, so we can’t just dig out the dirt and take it away.” Older structures and equipment must be rescued and stabilized; working in sections, contaminated soil and water must be removed, contained, and treated; nearby waterways must be monitored to verify that groundwater and surface run-off is now clean.
Other historic sites under the unit’s care often require environmental remediation as well, especially removal of asbestos and lead paint.
Regular Maintenance: Conservation at its Best
Conservation and Construction Services is also responsible for regular maintenance (as part of the heritage conservation process) at the sites under its care. To help with that, the unit is developing a maintenance manual for each historic structure. The manual will compile, for easy reference, all records of previous work conducted, related reports, cyclical maintenance requirements, and specific concerns to monitor “so we’re not caught off-guard.”
Alireza loves the challenge and creativity of heritage conservation work. “If a job is not challenging, it’s not interesting,” he says.
Modern buildings tend to develop predictable problems that have known solutions, he explains. But with heritage buildings, “the problems that we deal with don’t necessarily have known solutions. You have to come up with innovative ways of dealing with problems. I love that! It opens up the discussion. There are no right or wrong answers.” For every project, “you always consider the construction technology, what kinds of materials are used, why this is happening, and how you can resolve the issue without impacting the heritage fabric and values.”
An example is recent work at the Rutherford House, an interpreted site on the University of Alberta campus. The sun porch is used as part of the restaurant. Air leaked in through its windows, making the space hard to heat, and water condensation was rotting the wooden window frames and sashes. It was decided to add unobtrusive storm windows where none had existed before. That involved “coming up with different details, experimenting, discussing with our contractor what’s possible and what’s not, and monitoring the work along the way, experimenting to see if it works.” Now the heating and condensation problems are solved and the staff is “very happy,” Alireza says. And, “it would be very hard for you to pick out where the storm window is because it blends into the historic window as if it’s not there.”
From Iran to Canada
Alireza started his career as a civil engineer in his home country of Iran, doing project management for the construction of large-scale industrial and high-rise buildings. His eyes were opened to heritage conservation work when the firm that employed him was building the subway system in historic areas of Tehran. The discussions about the heritage fabric encountered there were like “poetry,” he recalls.
Alireza earned a master’s degree in heritage conservation in Tehran, then he cofounded a private company specializing in heritage conservation—a risky business venture in a country where almost all conservation work is done by the government. The company grew into one of the largest of its kind in Iran.
His company helped with stabilization of heritage structures of the 2500-year-old Bam Citadel, which was damaged in a devastating earthquake in 2003 in which some 43,000 people lost their lives. While doing that work, Alireza questioned why, at the same time that thousands of displaced people lacked basic necessities, conservation professionals were routinely advocating the use of the most advanced and expensive documentation techniques instead of less costly ones (laser scanning rather than study of years of existing aerial photographs.
That led him to the University of Calgary’s doctoral program in Environmental Design, to explore how and why professionals in heritage conservation (and potentially in other fields as well) choose which documentation technology to use. Alireza joined the Historic Resources Management Branch as a Restoration Officer in October 2011, and has been in his current position since July 2013, while also completing his dissertation.
After working on ancient monuments and sites in Iran, doesn’t Alberta’s heritage seem rather modest by comparison? Not at all, Alireza insists! “It comes down to a question of values—what you value. Heritage is heritage, regardless of how old a particular structure is. It brings people together, it creates a sense of community, and those are the important factors.
“And the conservation approaches are similar all across the board. For sure, some techniques are different, but the overall approaches are the same, so whatever you do in one part of the world could be adapted for anywhere else.”
As Director of Historic Places Stewardship, Larry Pearson heads one of the three sections that make up the Historic Resources Management Branch. Next October will mark Larry’s 35th anniversary doing heritage conservation work for the Province of Alberta—and he’s seen, and overseen, many changes.
Larry was completing a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Calgary, with a focus on heritage conservation, when he was hired as the Restoration Officer at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. Within a few years, the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village was amalgamated into the provincial Historic Sites Service, and eventually Larry became responsible for overseeing the architectural design work for all provincially owned sites undergoing restoration.
He was the project manager for a three-year effort to develop the Fort George and Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site—location of the first forts along the North Saskatchewan River, dating from 1792—into an interpreted site with a visitor centre and trail system. Later he headed a team, made up of colleagues he’d worked with at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, that researched and carefully dismantled St. Onuphrius Church Ukrainian Catholic Church. The Canadian Museum of Civilization (now called the Canadian Museum of History) acquired the small Eastern-Rite church to be part of the Canada Hall, its main permanent exhibit. That project won the 1997 Premier’s Award of Excellence as best team project.
Larry enjoys the challenge of planning restoration projects: “understanding how a building has changed over time, confirming what it looked like, deciding the appropriate period of significance that we want to return it to, and returning it to that period in a way that has minimal impact on historic fabric.” And he appreciates the value of collaborating (including having impassioned discussions) with colleagues from related disciplines. He continues to encourage that kind of teamwork in his current position.
As of 2000, Larry was managing what was then called Community Heritage Services, within the Historic Sites Service. Community Heritage Services was responsible for identifying and designating historic places as Provincial Historic Resources, and ensuring that their ongoing conservation preserved their heritage value, as well as providing assistance to community groups involved in heritage projects—a lot of what the Historic Places Stewardship Section does now. But this was somewhat outside the scope of the rest of the Historic Sites Service, which was focused on the development and operation of provincial historic sites. Meanwhile, other units involved in identifying, protecting, and supporting the conservation of historic resources were located in different branches of the Heritage Division. Because heritage resource management functions were diffused across the division, “the philosophical and policy discussions that needed to happen around how to identify, protect, and manage Alberta’s historic places didn’t happen,” Larry recalls.
In fall of 2000 he and colleagues from other branches within the Heritage Division were asked “to develop and implement a process that asked and answered the question: ‘Are we structured the best way we can be to accomplish what we’re being asked to accomplish?’” The result was a reorganization that established the current Historic Resources Management Branch in February 2001, gathering together functions that previously had been spread across other branches.
Larry was responsible for forming what was then called the Protection and Stewardship Section within this new branch, which he has headed since its beginnings. “The section’s programs are focused on identifying, protecting, and conserving Alberta’s historic resources,” Larry explains.
From the start he worked to ensure that “we had an established rulebook, a policy framework, about what we were doing.” His approach to conservation management was informed by his participation on the Association of Preservation Technology’s board of directors from 1984 to 1989, as a member of the training and conference committee, and later as program chair for its 1999 conference held in Banff. This work brought him in close contact with preservation professionals from the United States who were employing federal-level tools there, notably the U.S.’s National Register of Historic Places and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.
During the late 1980s, Larry led an initiative to develop a set of provincial standards and guidelines for the conservation and care of historic buildings. Alberta’s Guidelines for the Rehabilitation of Designated Historic Places, which were based on the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, were first printed in 1990, then revised and reprinted in 1993.
Then in 1999, Parks Canada began discussions with federal departments, provincial and territorial officials, and other stakeholders to develop a pan-Canadian strategy to identify and conserve Canada’s historic places. A team of representatives from provincial and territorial governments around the country worked intensively to develop a Canada-wide approach to heritage conservation.
Larry helped represent Alberta during the HPI planning process. Alberta was a key contributor to developing the HPI’s Standards and Guidelines. Alberta officially adopted the Standards and Guidelines in August 2003. Colleagues in his section ensured development of the Alberta Register of Historic Places and the listing of Alberta’s historic places on the Canadian Register.
Along with bringing these new guiding principles to the work of the section, which with the advent of the HPI had been renamed the Historic Places Stewardship Section, Larry also made a major organizational change: expanding the reach of the section by adding a new program area. Although municipalities had been empowered by the Historical Resources Act since 1978 to designate their own historic resources and implement protections for them, very few had chosen to do so, or even knew about this conservation tool.
Larry continues: “The federal government asked the provinces to reach out to their municipalities, to ensure they were included in the work of the Historic Places Initiative. So we took a portion of the federal HPI funding and developed the Municipal Heritage Services Unit. We flowed much of the federal money through to our municipalities. It was all about building municipal capacity. Within that unit, we developed a new program called the Municipal Heritage Partnership Program to provide matching grant funding to municipalities so they could identify through surveys and inventories what’s important to them, and to help them, again through funding, to develop [municipal heritage designations] and municipal historic resource management plans…So there was a very significant, concentrated effort on engaging municipal government.” The MHPP was officially launched in 2006, although aspects of it had been piloted in previous years. “It changed our focus,” Larry says.
More recently, the section’s responsibilities have grown to include the delivery of maintenance and conservation services related to historic sites and museums owned or operated by the Heritage Division, bringing further conservation expertise into the unit. The section also now provides research services in support of the interpretation programs of a number of these sites.
As Director of Historic Places Stewardship, Larry monitors, critiques, and signs off on all decisions made by the programs within the section. For example, he reviews recommendations on provincial heritage designation made by the Historic Places Research and Designation Program, approvals for proposed changes to designated resources made by the Heritage Conservation Advisory Services, and grant-funding recommendations made to the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation by different subject specialists within the section. He also oversees “staffing, manpower, budget—administrative things.”
A big part of his job, he adds, is encouraging collaboration and teamwork among the staff of the section’s different program areas. “Nobody could do what they do without somebody else from another unit helping them,” he says, “which I think is one of the reasons why it’s such a strong section. They all know what everybody else does, and they all have a very clear, shared vision.”
Darryl Bereziuk is relatively new as Director of the Archaeological Survey of the Historic Resources Management Branch—he is just coming up on his first full year in the role. He is no stranger to the branch, however. Prior to becoming Director, he was the Northern Regional Archaeologist for the Archaeological Survey. “So I still worked in this organization, for about eight years. So, you know, I’ve come up through the ranks, so to speak,” Darryl says.
The Archaeological Survey Section preserves, studies, interprets, and promotes Alberta’s archaeological resources. Much of Darryl’s job involves overseeing several management systems that have been put in place to protect and mitigate threats to archaeological resources in the province.
The “Heart” of the Archeological Survey
The first (and fundamental) system is the Alberta Archaeological Site Inventory—what Darryl calls “the heart” of the Archaeological Survey. The section maintains an inventory of more than 40,000 archaeological sites of diverse types: tipi rings, rock art sites, stone feature such as medicine wheels, and quarry sites where First Nations people obtained stone for making tools. Such resources are fragile and easily destroyed by resource extraction and other types of development—and Alberta is a very busy place for that, Darryl notes. The up-to-date inventory helps the Archaeological Survey to fulfill a main part of its mandate: to protect significant archaeological sites that we know about.
Various industries must submit their development plans for review as part of the Historical Resources Act (HRA) Regulatory Approval System. If it is considered likely that a development will impact archaeological sites, then a requirement might be issued to conduct an Historic Resources Impact Assessment (HRIA). These field studies serve to identify and assess the significance of archaeological resources before they are impacted by ground disturbance activities.
What are Historic Resources Impact Assessments?
HRIAs are aimed at examining how potential impacts to significant sites can be avoided or mitigated. The consultants, in Darryl’s words, “examine the potential conflict between archaeological resources and a project’s footprint, and then forward recommendations, on behalf of the industry, for avoidance or mitigation. The Archaeological Survey considers the consultant’s findings and issues a final recommendation.” The final recommendation from the Archaeological Survey might be that there are no further concerns arising from the study, and that development may proceed. Or, the Archaeological Survey might recommend either that the site be avoided entirely, or that industry conduct archaeological excavations of a portion of the site to compensate—with the knowledge gained from the excavation—for destroying the remaining portions. “These sorts of mitigation activities happen on a very regular basis,” Darryl explains. Darryl was a private archaeological consultant himself for about fifteen years prior to joining the government, helping industry clients to fulfill the requirements issued by the section he now directs —the Archaeological Survey. “That knowledge and experience has really served me well in this position,” Darryl remarks.
Before undertaking any survey or excavation, an archaeologist must come to the Archaeological Survey for official permission to do the work, triggering the second major management process that the section oversees: the Archaeological Research Permit Management System. “It’s not necessarily the materials in the archaeological site that are important,” Darryl explains. Instead, it is usually the “association of how the materials are distributed across the site that allows you to get at the important information”—that is, what the site has to tell us about past human behaviour or activities. It takes special training to excavate sites to see this larger pattern, and because the act of excavation is destructive in and of itself, the Historical Resources Act requires that anyone conducting an archaeological investigation have a valid permit. Permit holders must have “the appropriate educational training and experience to ensure that the destructive activities that they will be conducting will lead to really good information about that site—and that the information content of the site won’t be inadvertently lost,” says Darryl.
Despite the solid foundation of these regulatory management processes, the Archaeological Survey Section faces a number of challenges. First, as Darryl puts it, “we have very limited capacity and yet we want to save as many archaeological sites as possible.” The job is complicated by the fact that “we have to protect the [sites] we know about as well as the ones we don’t yet know about.”
In order to make a recommendation that an assessment is needed in light of a proposed development, the Archaeological Survey has to demonstrate that there is a “very high likelihood” that archaeological resources will be impacted. However, archaeologists have surveyed only a small portion of the province and detailed information about site location is sparse for some areas. Accordingly, “we’re always looking at ways to become more sophisticated in making these recommendations” when it comes archaeological sites that are unrecorded, but that undoubtedly hold a wealth of information about the province’s history. The section’s answer to this challenge is to draw on new technologies.
The Archaeological Survey had already been using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to regulate development near known archaeological sites, but has now started using this technology to create predictive models that gauge archaeological resource sensitivity across the vast unsurveyed portions of Alberta. Another new technology—LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), a method of remote laser scanning—is providing detailed digital elevations models that help to better pinpoint potentially sensitive landforms.
Another challenge is for the section’s archaeologists to conduct research of their own, on top of their regulatory work, since “part of our mandate is also to promote the appreciation of archaeological resources in Alberta.” The archaeologists engage in much public outreach to share their research, from writing magazine articles to giving talks at schools to participating in professional conferences.
Darryl and colleagues have been excavating—little by little, at the rate of three to four square metres per year—a site called Hummingbird Creek, located on the front range of the Rocky Mountains west of Rocky Mountain House. “It’s an amazing archaeological site,” Darryl enthuses, “that has super-imposed occupations—six, in fact—that extend back to 2,450 years ago. It represents the kind of multistratified site that allows archaeologists to really look at cultural change in the precontact period.”
Other archaeologists in the section are working on sites in the Oilsands region. Another has been visiting local collectors in Grande Prairie, mostly farmers who over the years have gathered hundreds of very significant artefacts from their lands. He photographs these artefacts or borrows them so that they can be analysed. This is a great project, states Darryl, that gives the Archaeological Survey a better idea of the character of archaeological sites in a region where large-scale farming operations have disturbed the significant majority of sites. Through engagement with local collectors, the Archaeological Survey can also educate them about the Historical Resources Act and other public outreach initiatives.
Responding to Disasters – Flooding
The last challenge mentioned by Darryl, like the other two, also provides an opportunity. The 2013 flood in southern Alberta destroyed homes and infrastructure, but Darryl states that “a lot of people don’t realize that…archaeological and paleontological sites were severely impacted by the flood,” as well. Archaeological sites tend to be concentrated near major river valleys because these watercourses were vital to precontact lifeways, Darryl explains. The Historic Resources Management Branch recently received $3 million to conduct exploratory surveys of the major flood-affected rivers in the Calgary region: the Bow River and its tributaries, the Elbow, Highwood, and Sheep Rivers. This project will take up much of the section’s “time and capacity” over the next two years, Darryl says. Some of the sites may have been completely destroyed, and the inventory of archaeological sites needs to be updated accordingly.
But the flood also created a unique opportunity, as it has also exposed new sites not previously observed by archaeologists. Bison bone beds that were kill sites for these animals have been left “just basically sticking out—[they are] very highly visible in some cases,” says Darryl. These sites along the river are vulnerable not only to natural erosion, as unstable cutbanks are reclaimed by the river, but also to collecting by the general public. “We’re racing against time to identify and preserve these sites,” says Darryl. “We will try to protect them from future flooding, and if that’s not feasible we may excavate the most vulnerable portions of those [sites] to ensure that we have that information before the next flood takes it away.” The Archaeological Survey Section, accustomed to meeting challenges, is doing what it takes to get this work done.
This is the first of a series of articles introducing you to the staff of the Historic Resources Management Branch. We hope to give you a better sense what our staff does to protect, conserve and promote Alberta’s rich heritage. We begin by introducing you to our Executive Director.
As Executive Director of the Historic Resources Management Branch, Matthew Wangler relishes the variety of his job, and the great range of historic resources he gets to learn about in depth—from quarrying sites used by First Nations peoples for thousands of years, to unassuming buildings embodying the history of one of Alberta’s most remarkable communities, to one of the world’s few meteorite craters holding surviving impact fragments (one of his favourites!).
The Historic Resources Management Branch is charged with identifying, documenting, and protecting significant historic, archaeological, and palaeontological resources within Alberta. This is done through regulation of development that could impact such resources, along with education and consultation to help others (municipalities, property owners, community groups) to conserve or interpret their historic resources.
This work is accomplished by three sections that Wangler oversees: Aboriginal Heritage, Archaeological Survey, and Historic Places Stewardship. Wangler reviews the major regulatory decisions of these sections. He is also directly involved in those large initiatives that involve other ministries. One such task has been working to develop the recently announced flood relief funding programs.
In addition, Wangler is Executive Director of the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. In that role he provides support to activities of the Foundation’s board, including its quarterly meetings, and he helps to ensure that funding decisions are implemented.
While some of his workload is predictable, much of it “comes out of left field,” he says. “It’s very common for an urgent issue to emerge the same day” that action is needed, “or the same hour, or the same minute.”
Often these concern potential risks to significant archaeological or built heritage sites that are not protected by municipal or provincial historic resource designation. The provincial government has the authority to require proponents of development projects potentially affecting such sites to undertake additional steps before their projects may proceed. For example, before being allowed to use land known or strongly suspected to hold evidence of early Aboriginal activity, a developer could be required to conduct an archaeological excavation. “So if an issue comes up that involves the exercise of this authority, I get involved. I have to make sure I understand all the ins and outs of the situation, so that I can brief [the responsible person] and he can make an informed decision.”
For instance, several years ago, City of Calgary staff alerted the Historic Resources Management Branch that a demolition application had been filed for a portion of the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company—an early and major employer that was highly influential in the development of Calgary and the region. The department responded by requiring the owner to produce a Historic Resources Impact Assessment.
Such requirements can buy time to educate property owners about the historical significance of their sites and the potential financial, environmental, and visitor-appeal benefits of conserving them appropriately. It also gives municipal planners time to propose conservation-friendly development alternatives.
“A lot of property owners are simply unaware” of the benefits of conservation, Wangler says. “But in the vast majority of cases, you can educate them about the value of heritage, both culturally and potentially economically, and you can bring them on your side.”
In fact, lack of widespread awareness about Alberta’s heritage resources and the value of conservation is among Wangler’s most pressing concerns. Part of the problem isthat the value of much of the work of the Historic Resources Branch may not be immediately apparent to the public, although the artifacts and fossils that are recovered, the historic buildings that are saved and reused, and the cultural sites of significance to Aboriginal communities that are preserved contribute to a range of social, economic, and cultural outcomes.
“But the solution is quite simple!” Wangler continues. He’s eager for his staff to engage in greater public outreach—writing blog posts, visiting school classrooms, speaking at public events—to build awareness of Alberta’s diverse heritage resources and the opportunities they offer.
“Have people talk about what they love and why they do what they do!,” he urges. “Every person who works for my branch has a passion for history and heritage, that’s why they ended up working here. You scratch a little bit under the surface, and you find that most people do have some connection to heritage and some native interest in it. It’s really not difficult to find and create allies.”
This is the first of a series of interviews with people working in different program areas of the Historic Resources Management Branch. Recently, I sat down with Matthew Francis, Manager of Municipal Heritage Services, to discuss the work of the Alberta Main Street Program.
Matthew Francis joined Alberta Culture in 2005. He was originally hired to write Statements of Significance for Alberta’s Provincial Historic Resources and later took on the leadership of the Municipal Heritage Partnership Program. In 2007, he was placed in charge of the Alberta Main Street Program. He soon realised that his first task would be to make the program more sustainable.
The Alberta Main Street Program was at a crossroads in 2007
The program was 20 years old in 2007. It had rehabilitated 23 historic commercial districts with tremendous results, but was showing its age. Due to changes in federal-provincial job training programs, the Alberta Main Street Program could no longer conserve buildings with its own workforce. At the same time, the federal and provincial governments were rethinking how to conserve historic places: a new values-based approach to historic preservation emphasised that understanding a historic building’s architectural or historical significance is necessary to conserve it properly. As a result of these changes, some of the program’s common practices no longer made sense.
Indeed one of the basic tenets of the program—that each community was in the program for three years and then continued the work on its own—wasn’t working. “Many of the original Main Street Communities were seeking readmission to the program–not realising they had already completed it a decade or more ago. I call that main street amnesia,” says Matthew.
How do you revitalize an innovative program (that was never just about heritage conservation).
As he learned more about it, Matthew quickly became fascinated by the variety of problems the Main Street Program had been used to solve. “The communities applying to the program weren’t just looking to conserve buildings, they were trying to entice businesses to move downtown, they were trying to increase the property tax base, and some were even grappling with vagrancy and petty crime.” Although ostensibly focused on conserving historic buildings, doing so successfully proved more complex than simply repairing a foundation or touching up a façade.
Recently, Wainwright used the Alberta Main Street Program to cope with the disruption caused by a deep services project—the closing and tearing up of the street and sidewalks to replace disintegrating water, sewer and utility lines. While necessary to maintain municipal infrastructure, deep services projects hurt the businesses that temporarily lose the use of their main entrance.
The Main Street movement
Matthew has come to see the Alberta Main Street Program as a philosophy and a movement, not simply as another government service. The streetscapes and buildings in historic commercial areas are part of each community’s character.
“People show off places like Inglewood [in Calgary] and downtown Lacombe to visiting friends and family. It’s where they meet for lunch, shop and socialise.” Historic commercial areas have boosters that don’t see themselves has heritage conservationists, but they are. Matthew says that “conserving historic buildings is the key to preserving these areas, and most supporters of historic areas understand that intuitively.”
The Main Street Movement is showing a new way
The Main Street Program demonstrates how the interests of culture and heritage intersect with the fostering of social capital and the economic revitalization of downtown. “A properly conserved historic area is an attraction to both residents and tourists. People want to shop, work and live in these areas—and that can provide the funds to conserve the buildings.”
During the last several years, Matthew has been remodeling the Alberta Main Street Program, using the (U.S.) National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program as a model. The U.S. Main Street Program is organised around four equally important ideas: organisation, design, marketing and economic development.
Community members are the stewards of these areas, particularly the people who live, work or own property there. With the support of the local government, they must oversee the program and hold themselves accountable for its success. Government can’t, and shouldn’t try to run a community-based program like Main Street. Matthew and his colleagues coach and mentor, but they don’t try to run the individual programs from Edmonton: “Local people with local knowledge and energy are keys to authentic and viable main streets.”
The historic places on main street are irreplaceable assets. People come to see the historic places as landmarks; the historic building set downtown apart from a mall, and often the neighbouring town as well. “New buildings are fine, so long as they are compatible with the historic streetscape and don’t falsify it. The compelling streetscape is what initially attracts visitors to the downtown,” he says.
The businesses on successful main streets coordinate their marketing, recognizing that most visitors won’t bother coming to visit just one shop or restaurant. “New trends in social media drive traffic to businesses and historic communities are capitalising on this new way of doing business. All of our Alberta Main Street communities are using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to see and be seen,” says Matthew.
Over the long run, historic main streets areas pay their own way. Tenants in the historic buildings pay for much of the cost of a building’s upkeep; the business owners together pay for the marketing and design work, either directly or through their property taxes. Investment in conservation and marketing pays off as an increasingly large number of people want to live and do business on Main Street.
The renewal years
Since 2007, the Alberta Main Street Program has grown into a network of communities. Matthew is constantly impressed by the grassroots support for Main Street in each community the program works with; he’s also been amazed by the variety of problems these communities have tackled through the program. He gets excited when talking about what has been accomplished.
“The team in Olds has organised a huge number of volunteers to put on all sorts of events promoting the downtown, such as their popular Summer Oldstice Street Festival. They’re also planning for a deep services project of their own.”
“Wainwright has had tremendous success with their Taste of Wainwright culinary festival in the downtown. It has been a signature event, attracting visitors from across Alberta.”
“When Lethbridge joined the program a decade ago its downtown was down on its luck: businesses were failing, vacancy was high and the area was dealing with petty crime and social problems. Using the tools of the Alberta Main Street Program, they reduced the vacancy rate to almost nothing. Businesses are thriving downtown and many of the social problems have faded. With a vibrant coffee culture, creative restaurants, and businesses, downtown Lethbridge is the place to be.”
Looking forward to the year ahead
Matthew is already looking forward to a busy and productive year in the program. There are already four communities in the new Alberta Main Street Program: Camrose, Olds, Wainwright and Lethbridge. “We’re excited to be gathering the coordinators from all of our communities quarterly to talk about best practices and learn from each other.”
Camrose rejoined the program very recently. They will be hiring a Main Street Coordinator shortly. Like all Main Street communities, they completed an inventory of historic places on the main street before being admitted into the program. “The deeper understanding of their historical places which they gained through this heritage planning project, will inform their new work in Historic Downtown Camrose,” says Matthew.
Two Municipal Historic Resources in Uptowne Olds are undergoing multi-year conservation projects: the Maybank Drug Store and the Kemp Block and these should be done by July. Like Wainwright before it, Olds will also be undergoing a major deep services project once the ground thaws.
Olds will also be hosting the first quarterly coordinators meeting, in February 2014. “It’s going to be interesting to see the Olds’s coordinator picking the brains of the other coordinators, particularly Wainwright’s, for ideas on how to deal with the disruption deep services projects cause.”
Having completed their deep services project last year, Wainwright will be finishing up the redevelopment of their streetscape. “Wainwright has the classic Alberta main street, laid out as an intersection of Main Street and the historic railway line. “The Alberta Main Street Program funded the design of the new streetscape and Matthew’s looking forward to seeing the result.
Lethbridge will undertake the conservation of its historic Chinatown. The city council will designate two new Municipal Historic Resources in a few weeks: the Bow on Tong Building and Manie Chinese Opera Society Building. “These buildings were in danger of collapsing, but a grassroots effort led by the Lethbridge Historical Society and the Lethbridge Main Street Program succeeded in stabilising them. The municipal historic resource designations will help to see these special places conserved over the long term,” Matthew says.
All good historians look to the future
So much has changed in the past few years, but Matthew continues to look ahead. “I expect that five years from now there will be at least 20 communities in the Alberta Main Street Program. The network of communities will be sharing ideas with each other and perhaps engaging in national marketing campaigns together. We look forward to celebrating new communities joining the Main Street network in 2014.”
If you’re interested in conserving historic commercial areas you can contact us, and consider attending the 2014 (U.S.) National Main Streets Conference, May 18-20, 2014. It’s in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is a great American city. As most know it has been hurt badly by the restructuring in American car manufacturing. Detroit is using the U.S. Main Street Program to revitalise its commercial areas.
It’s going to be an interesting year.
Written by: Michael Thome, Municipal Heritage Services Officer.