Bringing the Peaches back to Main Street
“Meet me at the market” is an often-heard saying in the Town of Grimsby, Ontario, each year from late spring to early fall. The downtown farmers’ market demonstrates the strong sense of community that exists in this town. It’s a place to shop for local produce, meet, participate in special events, or perhaps just sit on the patio at a restaurant and watch people enjoy the setting. In a town of 26,000, you are bound to see someone familiar. It’s a place of economic activity, but it’s also a place where some of the most important aspects of Grimsby’s intangible heritage can be taken in. The basket displays of bountiful locally-grown crops of peaches, cherries, plums, and grapes; the sounds of well-known local musicians; the smell of local butcher shop sausages being cooked, and that warm small town feeling that just feels like home. You could easily think that the market had been an institution in the town for many years, but it’s actually a very recent phenomenon of barely a decade. Its positive impact on the sense of community in Grimsby as a whole, and on the economic vitality of Main Street has been transforming.
Downtown Grimsby is typical small-town Ontario. Located at the centre of the community, it features small shops in 18th-and early 19th-century buildings along Main Street. Its visual quality is enhanced by the beautiful topography of the Niagara Escarpment, and in particular, the twin peaks of Mount Dorchester and Grimsby Point rising majestically above.
Like many downtowns, Grimsby has seen its shares of ups and downs over the years. Its peak was probably in the early 20th century, when the tender-fruit industry was at its prime and the downtown featured an electric railway line carrying both passengers and freight running along Main Street between Hamilton and Beamsville. The most famous crop carried on the railway were peaches. A hundred years later, downtown Grimsby was looking a little tired and in need of investment, with a number of vacancies on the street. The sense of being at the centre of nature’s garden had also dissipated with many of the former peach orchards being turned over to post-war residential development. “The only peaches you might see in Grimsby in the near future are the ones portrayed on the town coat of arms,” said one local official.
Rejuvenating the Community
To counter this decline, the community – led by its Economic Development Advisory Committee and Downtown BIA – came together in 2007 to instigate a series of initiatives aimed at revitalizing the downtown core.
One development was the Community Improvement Plan, initiated with the financial assistance of the Ontario Rural Economic Development (RED) Program grant. After much community engagement, the plan was approved in 2009. It included a suite of recommended improvements and initiatives including design guidelines, façade and heritage grants, and public realm improvement recommendations.
Another project was the initiation of a downtown farmers’ market. Proposed in December 2007, through the Grimsby Economic Development Advisory Committee, the market was up and running in a local church parking lot by the spring of 2008.
A Local Market is Born
There was much to consider in establishing the market. A range of federal, provincial, and municipal regulations need to be adhered to: Food and Drugs Act, Agricultural Products Act, Food Safety and Quality Act, Health Protection and Promotion Act, and local municipal by-laws. Among these is a requirement that over half of the produce sold at the market needed to originate from local farms. The organizers of the Grimsby Farmers’ Market aimed higher, trying for 75 percent, believing that the “grown local” aspect of the market would give it a distinctive edge over retail store produce.
The timing of the market was also a consideration. Whereas many farmers’ markets operate on Saturday morning, in Grimsby there were a number of competing markets in this time slot, including the 180-year-old downtown Hamilton Farmers’ Market. There was also an established pattern of Grimsby residents heading to the cottage during the summer months. Thursday afternoons from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. was chosen and has been a great success. This time slot has also allowed for a range of different types of activities to take place, such as community dinners, walking tours, and busker festivals.
The market was a revelation, bringing not only fresh produce, but sense of being at the centre of an agricultural district. Perhaps the most welcome return is the bounty of tender fruit grown in nearby farms thanks to the unique microclimate that exists in Niagara West. It may be just a fruit to some, but in a town where the hockey team is called the “Peach Kings” it has really brought back that sense of Grimsby as a “Peach of a Town” once again. The market proved to be so popular that within two years, it was clear that a new larger market location was needed. The question was where? The downtown had no natural civic square. A few locations were suggested such as private commercial parking lots for example; but, after an exhaustive search, it was clear that the best place to host the market was along Main Street, closed to traffic as proposed by the Grimsby Downtown Improvement Area.
Challenges and Solutions
The move of the market to Main Street was not without its challenges. The closure of a major east-west thoroughfare was a concern to local motorists; however, a convenient detour route around downtown was established, which added no more than a few minutes to vehicular travel times. Now that the market is well established, alternative routes of travel are known among locals.
Fire safety was another concern. The local fire department wanted to ensure that if it needed to get to a fire along Main Street, that it could do so unimpeded with minimal loss in time to fight a fire. At first, this was achieved by placing the booths on one side of Main Street. However, merchants on the back side of the market booths became concerned at the loss in potential foot traffic as a result. A solution was eventually found whereby the parking of a fire truck on Main Street on market days allowed for both sides of the street to benefit from the market. For the fire department, it has provided the added benefit of giving it the opportunity to share fire safety information with local residents.
Some downtown merchants expressed a concern that as taxpaying businesses, they were put at a disadvantage versus market vendors with lesser overhead costs. This was countered with evidence that the market was clearly drawing people to the downtown that might not ordinarily have shopped in the stores otherwise. Eventually this matter was settled in July 2017, when an unfortunate fire that occurred on Main Street forced the market to take its business elsewhere for more than a month in peak season. The downturn in business activity with the market presence gone was clearly noticeable, to such an extent that when the market finally returned to downtown, it was celebrated across all sectors.
Not long after the relocation of the farmers’ market to Main Street, the town, in partnership with the Region of Niagara, launched its incentive programs for façade and heritage improvements, as well as public realm improvement grants. Initially, there were reservations from residents about the municipality granting public money to benefit private businesses, but the evolution of Main Street into a public space thanks to the farmers’ market, soon helped to overcome these fears. There is no question that walking along the vibrant Main Street on market day provides community amenities for all residents to enjoy.
Opportunities for All
The farmers’ market has become the engine for revitalization of downtown. It has served as an incubator for local businesses and initiatives to be tried and tested, and has diversified food offerings available to residents of the town. It has become a major attraction for locals and visitors alike and has seen over one-third of Main Street façades and heritage buildings improved. Most importantly, it has provided a central gathering space, a public square where people can come each week and immerse themselves in the atmosphere of beautiful small-town Grimsby.
Interestingly, employment as a whole has increased significantly since the establishment of the farmers’ market and the revitalization of downtown began. This supports the adage – when a business is considering locating in a community, one of the places they will look at is downtown. A healthy downtown with a variety of shopping and dining options is a potential attraction to employees, and speaks to the health of the entire community. Testimonials from businesses that have moved to Grimsby since 2010 have validated that. “I saw what was going on along Main Street and the noticeable uplift in downtown and that was a key decision in moving my business here,” said one local merchant.
It is evident from Grimsby’s experience that farmers’ markets offer tremendous opportunities for regeneration, economic development, and enhancement of cultural vitality across both downtown and the community as a whole. They are one of the most successful vehicles for bringing a community together in an environment that enhances a sense of community and identity, elevating the perception of the intangible heritage of a community that makes it unique and special. The market has both enhanced prosperity and given the town back its identity as a “Peach of a Town” thanks in part to the return in abundance of the humble but delicious tender fruit during market season.MW
Michael Seaman, MCIP, RPP is Director of Planning for the Town of Grimsby where he also leads the economic development portfolio. Previously, he was a manager of heritage planning with the Town of Oakville, and a senior heritage planner with the City of Markham and Town of Aurora. Michael is contributing editor for heritage for the Ontario Planning Journal and is currently serving as Ontario Governor on the Board of the National Trust for Canada.
Michelle Seaborn has lived in Grimsby for 30 years on a small family run farm. In 2006, she became a member of the Grimsby Economic Development Advisory Committee (GEDAC) and rose to the challenge to bring agriculture back to Grimsby. She was first elected to council in 2010, and is active with many community groups as well as the Grimsby DIA and is the current chair of GEDAC.
as published in Municipal World, February 2018