Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Doing the Bromont Hustle

While stagnation mars the wellbeing of many small communities, one Quebec town is in the midst of a boom. Some say it's not the best way to spark a revival

By Alex Roslin
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Montreal Gazette
[original story]

Amid the historic Loyalist villages of the Eastern Townships, the fast-growing town of Bromont is the brash young upstart that the old-timers like to complain about. But the complaints are increasingly mixed with grudging respect.

That's because in a region that's experienced a long, grinding economic decline and loss of its young to Montreal, Bromont is a boom town. Nestled in the side of the Appalachian ski hill of the same name, the town of 6,000 is a veritable Quebec boom town.

Founded 45 years ago out of cow pastures and forests by Roland Désourdy, patriarch of the Désourdy construction dynasty, Bromont was conceived as an idyllic village kissed by nature and a high-tech hub that, in Désourdy's words, would be no less than "one of the most prestigious places in the world."

While manufacturers flee other Townships communities due to a soaring loonie, Bromont has expanded employment at its high-tech industrial park to 5,000 and has drawn marquee names like IBM, with 2,800 workers at its 850,000-square-foot plant, General Electric and Quebecor World.

The town's New England-style outdoor mall has attracted over a dozen boutiques and restaurants and is slated to balloon in size, while Ski Bromont is now Canada's biggest night-ski destination and the Bromont Olympic Horse Park is the province's leading equestrian venue.

With a population that's doubled since 1991, Bromont now finds itself with a Montreal-style traffic disaster during rush hour. The newcomers, including many young families, are so plentiful that Bromont, rather than wait for funds from the provincial education ministry, is itself building an expansion annex at the elementary school, which, like the town's new library, will use an environmentally friendly design.

Bromont is, in fact, the only community in the regional school board where the student population is still growing.

The community's success stands in sharp contrast to a growing malaise in much of the rest of the Townships and many other farflung regions of the province. A soaring loonie and slowing global economy have pole-axed many towns reliant on forestry, manufacturing or tourism. Out-migration of young people, already a well-established trend, threatens to turn into an exodus.

Forty-five kilometres east of Bromont along Highway 10, the ski town of Magog has been rocked by manufacturing-plant closings that have cost 2,000 jobs in the past three years.

And now, one of the pillars of the Townships economy, skiing, is being menaced by global warming. The ski season in southern Quebec is expected to fall from four months to two by 2040 because of climate change, two Université de Montréal geographers, Bhawan Singh and Christopher Bryant, reported in a study last February.

Does all this spell doom for the small towns of Quebec? What makes some communities like Bromont thrive, while others wither? Is there some secret other villages can duplicate?

The debate isn't new, but it's taken on a new urgency amid today's economic upheavals. Complicating the question is the fact that small-town residents often have competing visions for their development. In fact, not everyone thinks Bromont's quick growth is a good thing at all. "We don't want to become another Bromont," is a common refrain in much of the Townships.

The question is, how can small towns survive without sacrificing their smallness and distinctive charm? Or should country folk cut their losses and start practicing how to parallel park in the big city?


Twenty-five kilometres southeast of Bromont, the hard times hitting the Townships have even hurt the tony enclave of Knowlton. While Bromont's sidewalks and shops are jammed, Knowlton is bedeviled by several vacant storefronts.

Much of the summer, Knowlton's downtown strip of historic buildings and quaint little stores has been nearly as quiet as Deadwood before a gunfight. Wintertime is quieter still.

The decline is all the more remarkable considering Knowlton boasts the region's most expensive real estate - and thus plenty of local shopping power - and is a fixture on tourism brochures.

Yet, Knowlton retailers have been hurting because of the drop-off in American tourism and newly opened box stores in nearby Cowansville. Winter tourism was further smacked down by the closing of the Glen Mountain ski resort in 2004.

"Tourism is a very, very fickle industry," says Natacha Racicot of the local 150-member Chamber of Commerce. "Many years ago, Knowlton was booming. Now it's gone downhill."

The situation is so dire that, last year, Knowlton called in the small-town mayor's version of the paramedics - the Fondation Rues Principales.

This 20-year-old Quebec City-based nonprofit helps hard-luck communities get back on their feet and has worked in 200 towns - and even some big-city neighbourhoods - on revitalization projects, many of them in beleaguered regions like the Gaspé and Abitibi.

Racicot is the co-ordinator of Knowlton's involvement with the project.

The foundation's course of treatment, which typically lasts three years, starts with getting residents talking about the problems and possible solutions. Those can be little things like downtown beautification with flowers, attractive signage, nicer parks and wider sidewalks to more profound changes like diversifying the local economy.

Often, getting everyone talking is the hardest step - and the most important. A common theme in many struggling small towns is internal conflict and a lack of community participation, said Jean-Yves Bernard, the foundation's project coordinator for Knowlton.

"Villages often come when they're in crisis. When we arrive, there's often an impasse. They're tried everything, but it's not working. They say, 'It's just you who can help us,'" he said.

The answer: mobilizing the community to save itself.

The poster child for this approach is Murdochville, a village of 1,000 in the hinterland of the Gaspé. When local copper mining operations shut down in 2002, the community held a referendum in which 65 percent of residents voted to close the town and leave.

But some refused. They called in the Fondation Rues Principales, and Bernard was dispatched to see what he could do. It was like being sent to a war zone. Violence had erupted between the two sides because shutting the town meant residents would be entitled to compensation payments.

"People were crying at our meetings," Bernard said.

His task for the project's first year: just getting the community to put aside the bitterness over its fate and talk. It started with little events-a community barbecue, a Christmas party, a celebration to mark the town's 50th anniversary. The events reminded people about the sense of community they had enjoyed and rekindled hope.

Residents organized a local news bulletin to encourage involvement in village life and refurbished their downtown. Today, Murdochville has transformed itself from beaten-down mining town to greenie mecca, complete with vibrant outdoor tourism activities and one of Canada's most efficient wind-power parks.

"Some [struggling] municipalities will use traditional means to get help, like lobbying governments," Bernard said. "Other take the democratic route and try to mobilize the riches of the population."

That formula also paid off for Burlington, Vt. Its story was typical of many Canadian and U.S. small towns. A new suburban mall was sapping its downtown, where historic buildings had already been blemished by misguided urban-renewed policies of the 1950s and 1960s. Despite a beautiful view of Lake Champlain, Burlington's waterfront was a dilapidated eyesore.

So Vermont's largest city called in the organization that helped inspire Bernard's foundation-the Main Street Program of the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The program, created in the 1970s, has found that for every $1 invested in measures like building façade improvement, marketing, nicer signs and energy conservation, communities get back $25 in economic activity.

In Burlington, the program helped spark a downtown renewal that included a four-block walking mall focused on independent retailers and renovating the waterfront with a park and science centre.

Burlington's efforts won it national recognition, including the Main Street Program's 1997 award for revitalization and, in 2007, being named the "Best Green Place to Live in America" by Country Home Magazine and "One of the Best Places to Retire Young" by CNNMoney.com.

Also last year, Burlington took the top place in a survey of 17 small-town downtowns in southern Quebec and Vermont by the Fondation Rues Principales.

Back in the Townships, Pauline Quinlan, the mayor of Bromont, has had a hectic few months. In May, the town held its annual Fête du Chocolat, followed by national and international horse competitions at the equestrian park, an art festival and a series of Sunday-in-the-park musical and dance performances.

The events are one of the secrets of Bromont's success, said Quinlan. "We want to create life in this village."

Also key has been preserving the town's natural and built heritage. That has meant leaving plenty of big trees to shade the downtown strip and requiring real-estate projects to preserve 40 percent or more of the area as a nature preserve.

And in order to attract telecommuters and the self-employed, the town has expanded high-speed internet access to 90 percent of its households.

In other parts of the Townships, some residents pin revival hopes on an influx of babyboomers. Demographers say boomers are quitting big cities as they approach retirement and moving to the countryside.

"This is a great opportunity for our region," said Peter Stastny, a former economic-development official who now works as a manager of Construction Iron Hill, based in Knowlton.

"Communities that provide boomers with the environment they want will thrive."

Others say it's vital to help young people stay in rural areas and attract new young families. That means offering a vibrant cultural life, work, good schools, environmentally conscious policies and affordable housing.

"There are people who say, 'We don't have a problem. We are a retirement community,'" said Jacques Lecours, a retired urban planner who is president of Knowlton's Rues Principales committee.

"Personally, I think to have a community that is healthy and vibrant, it is essential to have young families and young people."

TAGS: Eastern Townships, Knowlton, Bromont, Magog


Fondation Rues Principales

Main Street Program (of the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

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