One of the groups discusses its ideas during the Dynamic Downtowns workshop March 21 in Ladysmith.

What makes a dynamic downtown?

Town of Ladysmith participates in Dynamic Downtowns pilot project to create a toolkit for using heritage to build vibrant downtowns.

What makes a community’s downtown dynamic and inviting? How do you get people off the highway and into the downtown core? And keep them there once you’ve got them? How does heritage contribute to that?

There are the types of questions a group of Ladysmith residents were asked to address last week during a Dynamic Downtowns workshop.

The Town of Ladysmith was  selected to participate in a pilot project for a new Dynamic Downtowns toolkit designed to help communities examine how heritage assets can complement community downtown revitalization strategies. Twenty-five residents — including youth, property owners, councillors and representatives from the Ladysmith Downtown Business Association (LDBA), Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Revitalization Advisory Commission, the Advisory Design Panel, the Festival of Lights Society and the Ladysmith and District Historical Society — were invited to take part in a community workshop March 21. The evening featured an overview of heritage legislation and downtown revitalization case study information from other successful communities, as well as an opportunity for community dialogue. The workshop was facilitated by Maria Stanborough and Lindsay Neufeld of C+S Planning Group.

“Ladysmith and you have a tremendous responsibility to help our consultants here tonight to put the very best package together that will be utilized in small and big towns throughout the province of British Columbia,” Mayor Rob Hutchins said as he opened the workshop. “This is a unique opportunity. We have a pretty powerful group of people here who are going to carry the load for the province. We are here as a workshop to put together a toolkit for the province of British Columbia, so this is not only benefitting our community, but also benefitting other communities that have not had the same richness of investing in their heritage as we have.”

Hutchins says Ladysmith was chosen for this project due to its size with roughly 8,000 people and because the town has already shown a commitment to heritage in the past, investing heavily in revitalizing the downtown core — with help from the provincial and federal governments — in 1985-86 and 1999-2000. It was after both of these revitalization efforts that Ladysmith led the province in growth, he added.

“We have benefitted, and the work we are going to do tonight is now going to hopefully benefit other communities as well,” said Hutchins.

This is a pilot project, so feedback is very important, explained Stanborough. All the information provided in the workshop will go back to the provincial government.

“The approach we’re taking is really looking at a practical approach to heritage conservation,” said Stanborough. “You are the pilot project to do the study, and it’s fantastic because you have these heritage assets, and you’ve obviously invested in them and want to see what the next steps are for the community.”

The Dynamic Downtowns workbook presented during the workshop explores how heritage can be a key to creating “dynamic downtowns” — centres where people live, work, visit, shop and dine. “Dynamic downtowns” are downtowns where heritage buildings are a key feature, drawing local residents and visiting tourists who want what may feel like a more authentic retail experience than a shopping mall, according to the workbook. Heritage areas tend to be walkable, with human-scale architecture, local enterprises and smaller businesses, and for many visitors, heritage buildings in a downtown define the character of the community, the workbook notes.

“Heritage buildings can’t be everything to everyone,” said Stanborough. “You have to look at what your downtown can offer and how you can set yourself apart. Ladysmith has already identified a lot of this.”

Stanborough says heritage buildings can be small business incubators, as they tend to be smaller and therefore cheaper to rent, and they can create jobs when it comes to heritage revitalization projects. Older buildings can also be less expensive and can add to a community’s diversity of housing options, she added.

The Dynamic Downtowns workbook offers case studies of successful downtown revitalization projects in Victoria, Nanaimo and Kelowna, and it identifies a handful of key points to consider. These include a commitment to downtown revitalization from local government, heritage assets, downtown amenities, access, residential development, doing an economic cost-benefit analysis of heritage rehabilitation, identifying the environmental benefits of reusing and retrofitting heritage buildings, and identifying the social and cultural benefits of heritage buildings.

“When it comes to planning for heritage, it’s important to recognize a community’s heritage has many levels,” said Neufeld. “When it comes to built structures, finding new uses for old buildings is important to keep them relevant. Planning with heritage in mind can help communities achieve their sustainability goals and help ensure a community’s identity is kept.”

Workshop participants were broken into small groups and asked to come up with the answers to three questions — What are gaps/issues in your downtown? How can you address these issues from what you heard about heritage rehabilitation? What are the next steps?

“The issue with Ladysmith’s downtown, like others, is getting people out of their cars,” said Stanborough. “Heritage is part of the overall issue of downtown revitalization.”

Stanborough says it’s important to create diversity and interest in your downtown and that any successful downtown needs connection.

Parking and sidewalks are always issues downtown, according to Stanborough, who says it’s also important to consider the kind of signs you have downtown and the signs you have to draw people into the community and to look at ideas like public art and information kiosks downtown.

Some of the gaps and issues the workshop groups identified for Ladysmith include the lack of a viable restaurant or pub downtown, lack of residential spaces downtown, the need for better signage on the highway, the need for continuity with sidewalks, a lack of accommodations, a lack of public spaces downtown, a need to encourage a better business mix, concern about sandwich boards on First Avenue, lack of off-street parking and signage  for the parking we do have, the fact that significant heritage buildings are underutilized, and the need for a four-way stop at the corner of High Street and First Avenue to make it safer and also slow drivers down so they can see what we offer.

Stanborough and Neufeld will create a summary report from all the information gathered at the workshop and will provide that report to the Town of Ladysmith and also to the provincial government’s Heritage Branch.

“Ideally, this information will all go to Heritage BC and will be part of a program for heritage revitalization,” said Stanborough.

Hutchins plans to bring this information to the joint economic development meetings taking place between the Town, the LDBA, the Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce and the Stz’uminus First Nation.