Reflections on Main Street: an interview with François LeBlanc

REFLECTIONS ON MAIN STREET

An interview with François LeBlanc

(Published in 1987)

François LeBlanc's office proves that the shortest distance between the street and the organization that loves it most is a straight line. You get to his national capital office by walking from Metcalfe Street up the steps of the Heritage Canada Foundation headquarters and, once in the building, by turning neither left nor right but by walking straight ahead.

François LeBlanc received his architectural degree from the University of Montreal. In 1971 he embarked on a distinguished career as a restoration architect with Parks Canada, becoming the Chief architect for the agency's Quebec Region. There he supervised engineers and architects responsible for the restoration of national historic buildings and sites. In 1979 he moved to Paris where he served as the director of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. In 1983 he joined the Ottawa-based Heritage Canada Foundation as director both of its property programme and of Main Street Canada. Since then, he has tirelessly criss-crossed the country, shaping a programme considered by many to be the most important urban conservation undertaking in Canada. We interviewed him recently in his Main Street office. Highlights:

Main Street: Why was Main Street Canada launched?
LeBlanc: The Heritage Canada Foundation had long noted that the great mass of heritage buildings is located in our traditional downtowns. But by the 1960s those downtowns were endangered: the growth of the suburbs, strip shopping, regional malls, urban development, and downtown merchant apathy had all threatened the community's traditional hear. The Foundation realized that if the core suffered, so would a great deal of irreplaceable architecture, In 1979, then, Heritage Canada started the Main Street programme to help revitalize Canadian downtowns.

Main Street: Hadn't there been various schemes advanced over the years to save downtown building?
LeBlanc: Yes. Since the 1950s a number of programs had been attempted. One notable example, undertaken in England, was the Civic Trust's Norwich Plan. It and most of the other early schemes ended in failure.

Main Street: Why?
LeBlanc: They dealt with buildings in isolation. They didn't realize that dilapidated structures were merely symtoms of serious, inderlying diseases. Those early schemes didn't ask the right questions.

Main Street: What questions?
LeBlanc: Questions such as: Were downtown merchants properly organized? Were they marketing themselves aggressively? Were they addressing commercial and economic concerns?

Main Street: Those are not architectural questions.
LeBlanc: No. But they are every bit as important. If those questions go unresolved, no building conservation programme will work. Our experience at Main Street is that only 25% of what we do deals with the built environment. Seventy-five percent deals with other matters, with marketing downtown, with economic, social, and cultural concerns.

Main Street: And Main Street Canada addresses those concerns?
LeBlanc: Yes. Main Street Canada advances a four-point approach that focuses not only on design but also on organization, marketing, and commercial and economic development. I think that in this regard Main Street is the most comprehensive revitalization approach developed so far for small communities.

Main Street: How are the Main Street points implemented?
LeBlanc: A community commits itself to the Main Street Canada programme for three years. A Main Street office is established in the heart of downtown. A Main Street co-ordinator is hired to help the community carry out the four-point approach.

Main Street: Why are you so convinced your programme works where others have failed?
LeBlanc: Because the approach has been very carefully tested. It was tried first, with great success, in the U.S. in the late-1970s. The American approach, sophisticated and widely-applied, has since revitalized hundreds of communities. We launched our version in 1979. We started slowly, testing it over a five-year period in seven pilot communities.

Main Street: And the experiments were successful?
LeBlanc: Floundering communities organized themselves. They developed commercially and economically. They conserved their buildings and streets. Their cash registers jangled. Jobs were created. Community spirit improved. Be every yardstick, the Main Street communities out-performed both their own past records and nearby non-Main Street neighbours.

Main Street: It sounds as if your approached the programme like urban scientists, basing your work on careful experimentation.
LeBlanc: The best working comparison is the highly-successful regional malls. The malls don't miss a trick: they use regularly-updated surveys; they use finely calibrated management techniques; they stress efficiency and marketing. We did the same.

Main Street: And the programme spread?
LeBlanc: The results from the original seven communities were so good that the federal Department of Regional Industrial Expansion made a 10-year contribution to assist us broadcast the news. There are now almost 40 communities that have welcomed the Main Street Canada approach. By the end of our 10-year programme, upwards of 70 communities will have participated.

Main Street: What kind of a community is likely to benefit form the Main Street approach?
LeBlanc: Any community is free to try the approach. (It has only to follow our book Reviving Main Street). We, however, have what conservationists call a field of intervention. We focus attention on a certain kind of community. We noticed that the needs of small- and medium-sized Canadian communities were not being specifically addressed. We therefore centred upon them, choosing ones with a committed town council and merchant organization; they must prove an interest in conserving their resources, in acting cohesively; they must how a willingness to emphasize self-determination, self-initiative, self-perpetuation, local resources, and traditions.

Main Street: Does the programme have wider application? Does it work, for example, in cities?
LeBlanc: We have a method that works for the central business core of small and medium-sized communities. Our mandate, our experience, our competence reside there. Beyond that, we're not certain. We have launched an experiment in one larger community – St. John's – and it is going remarkably well. But that's the extent of our expertise with larger communities.

Main Street: But why not more emphasis on cities?
LeBlanc: There are variables we still haven't worked out. The problems facing large urban areas are very different form those facing small towns. In a small community, the co-ordinator need turn to just a handful of people for decisions. Co-ordinators in one Chicago Main Street project, on the other hand, must deal with scores of civil servants. Size affects division of labour:: in a small town, a few leaders tend to do everything. In a big city the red tape is much ;tougher to cut through. Also, in a small town there is more volunteerism with its own ripple effect. In a big city things are done by offices and are compartmentalized. Size also affects impact. In a small town, the co-ordinator is a big fish. In a big city, he is just one of thousands of factors. In Chicago, again, garbage disposal can easily become a more important concern to the mayor than issues raised by Main Street staffers. Then there's the question of speed. Impact on small towns, good or bad, is created at a very fast pace; in cities the effect is realized more slowly.

Main Street: Let's look more closely at some of the actors on Main Street. Talk about the project co-ordinator.
LeBlanc: The project co-ordinators, one per community, are the key to the programme. They represent a new profession, really, the downtown equivalent of the shopping mall manager. They make the programme work. On the front line. connecting with local merchants, politicians. the media, the public. I admire their dedication, their competence, their understanding, the fire in their bellies.

Main Street: What's the most important thing co-ordinators learn?
LeBlanc: There are two things. First, co-ordinators learn that Main Street is a process – not a finished solution, in a living community it is never a matter of doing a certain thing and then it is done; downtown revitalization is a moving target and therefore the specific revitalization principles we develop have to be adaptable. There are no fixed solutions to changing problems.

Main Street: And the other thing?
LeBlanc: Second, co-ordinators know that the Main Street process demands the participation of a lot of people. The Main Street programme is run for the people and by the people. Without co-operation, it goes nowhere.

Main Street: Let's look for a moment at the structure which backs up the local co-ordinator. Who, in the Main Street scheme of thing, does the local co-ordinator turn to for help?
LeBlanc: We have established four regional offices: in the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, and the West. The regional offices are manned by regional co-ordinators. If the local co-ordinators are the nerve endings of the programme, the regional offices are its backbone. They, too, are out there on the firing line. They deal with the municipalities, with the provinces, with the media. They have to convince new communities to join. They are the ones who create credibility. If things go wrong, they take the heat.

Main Street: And what happens at headquarters?
LeBlanc: Headquarters is located here in Ottawa, in a wing of the Heritage Canada Foundation building. The head office's full-time staff numbers seven. The office has several functions: it develops policy, it meets with various levels of government, it offers supplies and services to local co-ordinators, it co-ordinates the four regional offices. Headquarters provides back-up but the people out there are they key.

Main Street: Let's shift the focus now to some of Main Street Canada's relationships. How do you get along with the municipalities?
LeBlanc: This is where the love affair with Main Street Takes place. This is where we find our support. That's because the Main Street programme focuses its attention upon the community. It is really a celebration of the community: it says that the answer to problems resides in the resources that already exist at home, in the people and things that are already there. Where the Main Street programme has been tried, local politicians, merchants, media, and volunteer groups have been very enthusiastic. The results are very good: they're happier with themselves, and they're happier with us.

Main Street: How does Main Street get on with the provinces?
LeBlanc: Our relationship with the provinces is a complex matter. We get on better with some than with others.

Main Street: Why the uneveness?
LeBlanc: There are many reasons. For one, the British North America Act established heritage and municipal affairs as provincial matters. Main Street revitalization is therefore a provincial concern. Several provinces operate their own Main Street programs – some of which are better than others., Because municipals affairs is a provincial matter, some provinces see us a s interlopers, invaders of territory, the boys from Ottawa who come in telling people what to do. This latter attitude is based on a misconception.

Main Street: What misconception?
LeBlanc: That Main Street is part of the federal government. We are not. Heritage Canada is private charitable foundation, representing tens of thousands of volunteer conservationists across the country. But we can say this until we're blue in the face and we're still seen as a federal agency.

Main Street: Other problems?
LeBlanc: In some places there is internal fighting between provincial ministries. Where this happens we sometimes get caught in the cross-fire. We might end up with a good relationship with, say, Municipal Affairs bu t a rocky relationship with Cultural Affairs. Or vice-versa. Another problem concerns funding. When, at the pilot stage, we pumped a lot of money into projects, we were welcome – but not, always, later. Another problem involves continuity. Provincial civil servants tend to change jobs with some frequency. When they do this, we often have to start from square one. Multiply all these problems by ten provinces and you can appreciate that we are juggling a lot of balls.

Main Street: Any hope that things will improve?
LeBlanc: Through long-term contact, our regional co-ordinators are improving their relationships with provincial representatives. And as the programme gets better known, the provinces are realizing that there are more reasons for collaboration than for conflict. We have begun to co-operate with several provinces, in fact. There is currently a joint programme under way with Alberta.

Main Street: What about international relations?
LeBlanc: We stay in close contact with Main Street initiatives in other countries, especially the U.S. This is predictable; Canada and the U.S. are going down the same track. There are subtle differences, of course, but we are much alike and many thing can be transferred.

Main Street: What about other nations?
LeBlanc: The fact of the matter is that, internationally, Canada is in the forefront of Main Street development. Many countries are sill focusing attention upon major capitals and tourist- and monuments-cities. Some have not yet turned attention to smaller communities.

Main Street: And those that have?
LeBlanc: When they do turn their attention to smaller communities they do it in one of two ways. Some try to solve problems by pretending towns are simply smaller versions of big cities. They consequently parachute in multi-million dollar solutions that simply don't work.

Main Street: And the other way?
LeBlanc: The other response is to treat small towns like monuments, freezing them in time. This approach does not work, either. the preservation principles that have been developed are for static monuments. But Main Street is vital, alive, changing. It needs principles that can be adapted to particular needs. Canada is one of the few countries that has developed small-town prototypes based on the radical assumption that living small towns are, in fact living small towns.

Main Street: Who will benefit from your research?
LeBlanc: All countries can. But in particular, I think our work will be useful to Third World countries where they must make the best use of the few architectural resources they own.

Main Street: Talk about the evolution of Main Street Canada. It's undergone a lot of changes in the past few years.
LeBlanc: I said that the Main Street Canada philosophy emphasizes process. So does the agency itself: we are constantly evolving. Seven ;years ago we administered seven pilot communities over which we had great control. Now we support with training and expertise about 40 under communities that operate largely under their own steam. In the next few years that number will go up to 70. But after that, we will have to change again.

Main Street: To what?
LeBlanc: One characteristic of a successful experiment is that it can be duplicated by others. Main Street Canada will be judged a success if hundreds of communities duplicate our pilot projects. The next step is for the communities to take over the programme.

Main Street: Doesn't this mean that the Main Street idea will take on a life of its own, far beyond Main Street Canada?
LeBlanc: It already has. We have created a Canadian Main Street co-ordinator's network that now exists outside us. When Main Street Canada co-ordinators meet annually in Ottawa, they fall into each others' arms, not ours. They have more in common with each other than with us. They share an emotional bond, the joy and suffering of an entire year. The co-ordinators are grateful that we provide a platform where this can happen, but their real contact is with each other. They are developing their own information network.

Main Street: So Main Street Canada is out of a job?
LeBlanc: The job will change. We will increasingly become the dispenser of expertise and advice. We will take up a new role: playing street doctor.

Main Street: Meaning what?
LeBlanc: If you are sick or out of shape, you go to a doctor. He checks you over, figures out what's wrong, suggests medicine, suggests a diet and an exercise regimen. After that it's up to you. I see Main Street Canada operating in the same way. We will examine sick communities, prescribe pills, offer a programme tailored to their needs, monitor their progress. But after that, it's up to the communities themselves to do the work.

Main Street: So Main Street Canada will be in the consultancy business?
LeBlanc: Our role will be to research methods, keep up with real estate changes, building technology, small-town merchandising schemes, design improvements. Main Street Canada will develop tools and strategies to keep merchants and councils abreast of the latest practices and technology. Main Street co-ordinator will become a profession. We will train co-ordinators. When one leave a position, another will be needed. We will train them. In such a way will the Main Street vision continue to revitalize communities all across the country, turning them into selling machines, improving their downtown built environment, giving them a renewed sense of pride in themselves.