DIGBY, N.S. – Investing in a façade program to spruce up the front of downtown Digby buildings likely won’t cost the municipality a dime in the long run, says an expert in downtown revitalization.
“These programs, in the successful communities, are able to make the money back in increased assessments (on the commercial buildings in the downtown core),” said Dr. Mathew Novak, an assistant professor at Saint Mary’s University.
“There is quite a good payout on the dollar,” he said.
Digby Mayor Ben Cleveland’s five-member downtown façade program committee was unveiled in December last year. That committee hasn’t met since then because of the holidays and so its strategy has yet to be developed.
But at least one of the façade program committee’s goals is clear: attract more people to visit and set up business in downtown Digby.
“We’re perfectly positioned to become a little downtown core,” the mayor in an interview. “We get all that traffic coming off the boat during the summer months and we want them to stay here for a few days.
“If they drive by without staying, we haven’t done our job,” he said.
Bay Ferries’ MV Fundy Rose brings a lot of people on the ferry to Digby from Saint John throughout the year.
In the past five years, Digby’s visitor information centre has seen a steady increase in the number of visitors to the community, bringing that tourism marker to 18,500 in 2016, back to almost where it was in 2003.
The downtown façade program is seen as one strategy to help Digby continue to fuel that growth in tourism – and create jobs.
Digby’s long history, dating back to the arrival of loyalists from New York City aboard the HMS Atalanta in 1783 under orders given by Rear Admiral Robert Digby, has left it with several historic buildings. Cleveland thinks it may be time for the community to restore some of them and show off the city’s heritage.
“Twenty-five to 30 years ago, there was a rush to cover up a lot of the facades with vinyl and maybe we should pause and take a look at that,” he said.
FAÇADE PROGRAMS ELSEWHERE
Certainly, heritage preservation and façade programs on downtown streets is a proven strategy to stimulate the local economy.
South of the border, Chicago-based Main Street America’s programs led to US$70.25 billion of investment and 584,422 jobs created in the 36 years that ended on Dec. 31, 2016. With 268,053 buildings rehabilitated, there was a net gain 132,092 businesses.
In 2016, Main Street America reported that communities were then seeing US$32.56 in new investment for every American dollar they spent on those programs.
“That’s a huge return on government investment,” said Novak.
In southern Nova Scotia, the nearby Town of Yarmouth’s façade program has also proven itself successful in just a few years, restoring life to empty storefronts and revitalizing tired-looking buildings.
Under Yarmouth’s façade program – which is overseen by a façade society – the town offers up to $5,000 in matching funds to businesses and property owners who want to invest in their buildings.
As of late August, the improvements that business and property owners had carried out saw a total value of $650,447.62. Since then the value has increased highter. As of mid-February the program has approved 62 applications, 12 in 2017, 49 façade applications completed (24 in 2017), 13 facades to complete by late spring 2018. There was $268,881 in grants approved, $894,261 value of building improvements made by the façade applicants (does not include in-house labour costs and submittable
With a successful façade program, a community can attract new businesses, spur job growth and even lower the crime rate, said Novak.
“You might argue (a successful façade program) could even lower policing costs,” said the expert in downtown revitalization.
“When you have more people on the street, you generally don’t have crime,” he said. “Criminals don’t like to act when there are witnesses.”