In the mid-1970s, in the wake of suburbanization and urban renewal planning programs that preferred new development to old buildings, small towns -- and large downtowns -- were struggling. Affordable and accessible suburban malls were drawing traffic away from traditional downtown shopping areas. These downtown streets were often the economic and historic centre of a town, and the loss of business to the suburbs, combined with past and present new development, posed deep problems.
Desperate to jump-start these downtown economies, many municipalities and provincial "downtown revitalization" programs approved urban versions of those same suburban malls and large convention centres. The hope was that if these shopping centres were located in downtown central areas, they would draw customers back into the downtown core, and from there to the smaller streets and stores. Yet smaller traditional main streets and entrenched communities would be disrupted to make way for these giant constructions, and the likelihood that consumers would ignore main street shops on their way from car to mall was high. Among the criticisms of these plans, which often threatened historic buildings, were the shouts from Canada's heritage conservationists.
The Heritage Canada Foundation (HCF), a national non-profit organization dedicated to heritage conservation, education and advocacy, saw the need for a program to revitalize downtown economies without destroying the existing built heritage. Since its inception in 1973 HCF had been devoted to the protection of historic places and to furthering the engagement of the Canadian population in heritage conservation. The people behind this organization believed that a town's heritage -- its historic buildings, landscapes, and unique "sense of place" -- could be used to attract consumers. Some saw similar potential in the opposite perspective: that capitalizing on the 1970s' need for downtown economic revitalization would result in better care for preservation of heritage. Whichever way you see the two, the goal was simple: to integrate heritage conservation and economic revitalization.
Enter: Main Street Canada. Led by the HCF, this program would touch hundreds of communities across Canada, attempting to give new life to old downtowns. Drawing on the experiences of other national trusts worldwide, HCF created and copyrighted a program that would teach willing communities how to get the most out of their downtown’s built heritage and preserve its value.
The program relied on four key principles: Organization/Management, Marketing, Design, and Commercial/Economic Development. Heritage Canada aimed to teach downtowns how to integrate heritage into economic development, setting a base that would help main streets stay profitable for decades. Over the course of the Main Street Program, which terminated in 1994, Heritage Canada affected over 200 communities across Canada. One regional department of the program, in Quebec, stayed open with funding from the provincial department of culture and still operates today as Fondation Rues Principales.
Heritage Canada The National Trust has announced the theme of the 2015 Heritage Day as "Main Street: At the Heart of the Community." In the Heritage Canada Foundation fonds at ARC, records of the Main Street Program make up a large part of the fonds. These records include correspondence, educational material, publications and reports as well as an extensive collection of slide photographs documenting the program's effects in different towns.