International tourism expert Roger Brooks presented his ‘20 ingredients for an outstanding downtown” at the Fergus Grand Theatre on July 31.
Centre Wellington Township organized the presentation and assessment, in partnership with the Fergus Business Improvement Area (BIA), as part of the county’s business retention and expansion action plan.
Brooks began his assessment of Centre Wellington early last December with visits to Fergus and Elora.
In making his observations, Brooks compared the two towns with his experiences in Europe.
“Downtowns are back. Across Canada and in the United States we are going through a major cultural shift; we are moving to the European standard,” he said.
The European standard he further explained, meant keeping businesses open past 6pm, when over 70 per cent of purchases happen, as well as prioritizing open air seating and outside spaces.
Elora, he found, had done well branding itself clearly as an artisanal town with a bustling downtown core.
Fergus, he went on to say, could emphasize a stronger sense of identity.
“If you want to be Scottish, then be Scottish,” he said.
One of the easiest ways to emphasize the Scottish theme and attract visitors, Brooks suggested, would be to rename the two main downtown blocks on St. Andrew street the “thistle district.”
Foremost on Brooks’ list of priorities was adding benches and potted plants downtown to break up the grey-on-grey of concrete sidewalks and stone façades.
He also suggested shops on the main street should hang what he called blade retail signs that explain the main products sold in each store in Scottish-themed type and clear enough to be read by drivers on the road.
Brooks referred to these three suggestions as the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the list.
While some of the changes could be done by business owners relatively cheaply, others on the list of 20, Brooks noted, would need cooperation from the county and property owners.
Ultimately, he said Fergus should narrow the lanes on St. Andrew’s Street so that trucks could not pass through.
In turn he would widen the sidewalks and change the parking on one side of the street to angle parking instead of parallel. Parallel parking, he said, is a hassle that could deter potential customers from stopping and shopping.
On Aug. 1 Brooks met with representatives of the Fergus BIA, Wellington County and the Regional Tourism Association to work through his findings.
Patricia Rutter, economic development officer Centre Wellington, said many of the items on Brooks’ list are already in the works. In the spring the township received $54,000 from the provincial government to help with the revitalization of the main street.
“A report was sent to council on July, 23 that outlined where we were going to spend that money, which included new planters, new signage and getting CIP grants to do blade signage,” Rutter said.
“Our ultimate goal for downtown Fergus is that it becomes a destination. We need to make it a place where the locals really want to go and the tourists will follow.”
For Mary Lloyd, owner of the clothing store Sensational You on St. Andrew Street, Brooks’ assessment was a long time coming.
She has owned her store for the past five years and in her opinion, “Fergus has been behind the times by about 10 years. And it will still take time to make these changes.”
However, Lloyd added she is encouraged by how easy some of Brooks’ suggestions were.
“I am really excited about the low hanging fruit that he listed,” Lloyd said.
Brooks added that he was impressed overall by the potential he sees.
“Fergus and Elora should be the two top destinations in this entire province; you have the potential,” he said.