UPDATE October 2020. The following article was written in 2016. I recently moved back to my hometown and I am currently renting retail space on King Street. I redid the assessment described below and wonder … has anything really changed for the better in the last 4 years? You decide.
2016 – Yesterday I toured my hometown to look for vacant spaces. I have always been interested in exploring potential development opportunities and was curious about what might exist in St. Stephen today. I have written about the decline of St. Stephen several times. But this time I wanted to take a look through the eyes of a developer who might be thinking about moving or setting up a business there.
With the possible further demolition of the “Town Hall” heritage building and other locations that are also on the “chopping” block”, plus the empty spaces left by fires and previous demolition and the multitude of empty store fronts, the downtown area of St. Stephen does not present an attractive front. While the parks and flowers are nice, they are no replacement for the businesses that once existed there and which were part of the active internal economy and a dynamic town. Unfortunately, the new multi-million dollar “civic center” may not provide the boost that some think it will, particularly as it seems to be simply replacing other traditional venues and causing losses elsewhere … but that is another story.
I took an hour or so to tour the downtown and other commercial areas and it is clear … St. Stephen is in desperate shape and it is doubtful that the spotty but nice grounds, the beautifully tended flowers, a sculpture, a monument and an arena will help. Certainly, Chocolate Fest and the Chocolate Museum will continue to attract people but these are “one-shot deals” and have little impact on the long term development of the municipality. With this lack of local business goes a lack of political power and the town folks should expect more closures of services like the court, and further cuts to health care and education services. This does not bode well for attracting new businesses or families to town. Would you move to a location that had limited services for your family?
THE DOWNTOWN TOUR
Although it may be too late, the recent purchase and upgrading to some buildings is a start, the proposed hotel and the arrival of another pub in the heritage railroad building might help … but it may only help “some” as we say around here. The new highway effectively bypasses the town. The coming of Giant Tiger and the new Irving “Big Stop” out at “The Mall” will further draw folks away from the old downtown. It’s classic actually and this is a future faced by many small towns as corporatism replaces small town economies while services and cash are removed and the towns shrink and wither. If you want folks to come … then you have to ask yourselves … “Why would this town bring people in for a visit and why would they want to stay?”
Through the years, I have witnessed the destruction of many local businesses by suspicious fires, the demolition of numerous other business buildings including 3 magnificent former hotels and several heritage buildings, and the collapse of small local businesses when the malls came to town and demolished some of the most beautiful houses along King Street. The large number of empty spaces I found in my tour, as well as the condition of many of these buildings speaks to a potentially unfortunate future since the cost of upgrading these structures may, by itself, preclude anything but demolition in the end.
I should not have been surprised at what I saw during my tour … particularly since I attempted to view the downtowns (I still consider Milltown, NB as separate and suffering badly from amalgamation.) in a totally objective way. Well … maybe I’m not totally objective since I have a personal history with St. Stephen. But I try.
I see two options
OPTION 1 – TEAR IT DOWN AND START OVER
Heritage has never been a consideration to St. Stephen. Some have always seen the town as a manufacturing centre like it was in its heyday. So efforts have always been directed to bringing in the latest industry and the big hitters (more taxes you know) … Texas Steel, a hockey stick factory, a boiler manufacturer, Sobeys, Super Store … the list is long. Some, like Ganongs, Flakeboard and some smaller players, have stayed and are important employers. Others have withered and died or took advantage of grants and tax incentives and then moved on. Meanwhile the huge local business base that kept the town looking alive passed on, leaving service industries and small hopefuls in their wake.
Sadly, downtown St. Stephen has gone beyond the point where it may be worth saving. The heritage town hall that folks are trying to save looks totally out of place alongside the newer “tin” buildings (that replaced other heritage buildings) and the other decaying wood and brick structures. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the whole thing?
With rising water levels, we will be rethinking our waterfronts and, most likely, we will be forced to move up the hill as it were. Why wait? Look at Calais, Maine just across the river. It supports a waterfront area with trails and services that focus on the river and their downtown is well removed from the water and, not incidentally, still sports some beautiful heritage buildings. What would happen if St. Stephen’s “downtown” was removed on the river side and an entirely new downtown was designed and built on the other side that was modern both in scope and outlook … a vibrant area that features the best of a modern lifestyle and some classy nightlife … some new farm-to-table restaurants selling locally sourced meats and vegetables, a new-concept theater, coffee shops, upscale pubs, maybe a brewery, unique arts and crafts manufacturers and retailers … potters, ceramics, upcycles, antiques and other businesses that could look to the greater market in North America … there are so many possibilities. Perhaps a new downtown would attract more talented folks to the town. But really folks … the accountant, lawyers, customs brokers and similar services need to be elsewhere … perhaps out at “The Mall”? What about the current property owners? Perhaps this is a great opportunity for a community corporation to own and build the new downtown with current property owners receiving shares based on the valuation of their existing properties?
OPTION 2 – GO FIND UNIQUE YOUNG BUSINESS PEOPLE AND MAKE THEM AN OFFER THEY CAN’T REFUSE.
Since the citizens of St. Stephen rarely seem to agree, the odds of option 1 being considered, let alone being put into play, are at or near zero. So the alternative is to find people to fill the empty spaces. Unfortunately, the economics of serving the local market usually do not create growth, but perhaps it is time to “design” the community better. Manufacturing is good but there are empty one-industry towns throughout North America. So perhaps St. Stephen could work with their known resources and actually recruit bright, knowledgeable, motivated, and hungry young entrepreneurs to come and give the place a try. Perhaps the marketing of the existing empty spaces could be done with an overall plan that considers the resources of the town and surrounding area?
So what are St. Stephen’s resource assets?
- LOCATION: To me this is really what St. Stephen is all about. It sits on the border with a huge American market virtually on its doorstep. Local business can literally operate from 2 countries using the internet and with the simple addition of a Calais postal box and address. Customs clearance and shipping can occur with direct involvement through local customs brokers and international shippers.
- THE INTERNATIONAL NEXUS: St. Stephen and Calais are an important crossing for bulk goods passing to and from Canada and the United States. Fish products from Newfoundland/Labrador, Nova Scotia, PEI, and New Brunswick, for example, pass through here on the way to southern markets. Similarly many trucks return empty and offer shipping opportunities to move product back up into Canada or to remote locations in Canada.
- THE FISHERY: Back in the day when the St. Croix River and Estuary were productive fishing locations and the railroad still came to town, local processors could ship almost anywhere in the east and an estimated $10 – $20 million dollars was generated in those days by local fisheries that utilized this border for shipping. Perhaps this is a good argument for working to return the St. Croix to a productive state.
- NEW PRODUCTS: Fisheries is only one product group. What other products could a broker move north-south and south-north. Who out there needs someone to expand their remotely located business? Stamps, books, antiques, crafts, arts, software and more can be moved through the mail, carrier and trucking systems of St. Stephen, Calais. There is no need for new companies to think in purely local terms. In fact wisdom would dictate that new businesses think more globally while building a local presence. But St. Stephen needs to attract a broad base of talent and to forge an image as a vibrant community instead of a dying community.
- WOOD PRODUCTS: St. Stephen and Calais were at their economic best during the lumbering era. Indeed, wood processing is important today, but the current harvesting and clear-cutting methods are hardly accessible by a small business developer. That doesn’t mean that further processed and exotic wood products are not available and the opportunity exists for crafts people who can create wood products suitable for export and local sale.
- SPACE SHARING: So how do you attract the talent? Space and facility sharing is growing around the globe and therein, perhaps, lies the solution for St. Stephen’s property owners if they have the nerve to pursue it. When they are empty, the properties I saw are a liability … the taxes and maintenance costs still keep on coming. How much rent is needed to play catch-up after your place has been empty for a year? 2 years? 3 years? It is an argument for demolition I fear. So why not consider a space sharing program of some sort? Perhaps free rent in exchange for covering base costs and/or some renovations? Perhaps a phased-in deal where rent increases at an agreed upon basis over several years? Perhaps a partnership of some sort that allows the new business to have a buy-out option. A lease-purchase? Airbnb offers an interesting option if your space fits that mold. Coworking is the answer if you work in your space but have lots of spare room. There are many ways that a property owner can profit from their empty spaces.