Feature News

Is This How We Bring Small Towns Into The Future?

ST. STEPHEN – Members of the New Brunswick business community are working together to bring St. Stephen into the future.

The Future St. Stephen project is aiming to revitalize the town’s main commercial areas; increase the population of the town 20 per cent over the next 10 years and develop quality accommodations and specialty retail and food services along the river.

The project started last year with a small group of concerned citizens meeting weekly to discuss how the town could revitalize the downtown and increase its population base. One of those concerned citizens was David Ganong, executive vice-chair of Ganong.

“The objective is to attract both active retirees and mobile young professionals. St. Stephen offers a relaxing, friendly small town environment for people wishing to move from busy big city life to a cost effective, attractive community with a large variety of outdoor activities like the adjacent Ganong Nature Park and the Garcelon Civic Center,” Ganong told Huddle, via email.

“For both active retirees and young professionals, St. Stephen is ‘the Middle of Everywhere’ being on the border, next to the twinned Highway 1 and an hour and a half drive to three commercial airports in two countries.”

Ganong says there are over 40 volunteers involved in the project, including members from the St. Stephen Chamber of Commerce, the St. Stephen Business Improvement Association, the St. Stephen Development Board and municipal government. The group is in the process of integrating a full time president to coordinate the initiative, but Ganong says lots of development is already underway. Projects on the go include a new restaurant in the downtown railway station, a new Pita Pit coming to Milltown Boulevard and a new Irving Gas Bar, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken being constructed by Highway 1. They are also getting a Giant Tiger slated to open in June. That’s just the beginning.

“The town council has also purchased three derelict buildings to be taken down to improve the streetscape and open up land for new development on King Street,” Ganong said. “And a further three buildings along the water front to become a new multi-purpose building with retail and apartments overlooking the St. Croix River and the U.S.A.”

A Picaroons brewery is also opening in the downtown railway station. It was an idea that owner Sean Dunbar has been floating around for a while, so when he was approached by David Ganong about it, he jumped at the chance.

“It’s an invitation from a group of citizens who have no real interest in the project other than making their town and region better, so it’s a really cool way to be invited in,” Dunbar said. “When you have the internal momentum it’s just easy to go with that whole thing. Small breweries all over North America and all over the world have proven to be weird little businesses that liven up small towns.”

Having the private sector and community members working together to spur development is a model Dunbar said he’s confident will work. With his company also working on new projects in Saint John and Fredericton, community building something they are trying to do as well.

“I hope it’s part of the answer for building towns and cities in New Brunswick… Most businesses try to build their communities,” he said. “It’s not new; it’s the motivation for businesses locating in places. We don’t locate places because we want cheap labour. We don’t go because we’re getting subsidies. We go because we believe in the communities and our employees want to live in those communities.”

As for long-established businesses working alongside the new, Dunbar says there needs to be more of that. It’s a small province and we should start acting like it.

“The connectivity is there that somebody like me can get a call from somebody like David Ganong who’s from one of our founding business families and we can have a conversation and work on the project together,” he said. “That can be happening all over the place. Those sort of connections are possible in New Brunswick and I don’t think we take advantage of it quite enough.”

Ganong says collaboration is key for Future St. Stephen’s success.

“The success of the aggressive Future St. Stephen initiative will only happen if the entire community is working together with the support of the business community and governments,” Ganong said. “Except for the property purchases all current investment has been from private sector sources.”