How a Small Canadian City Kept Business and Growth Alive During the Pandemic

City of St. Thomas, ON
Written by Karen Hawthorne

Over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of headlines about doom and gloom through COVID-19, but there are some good news stories. No question, the pandemic has been a challenging time for mental health, weathering all the uncertainty and following the protocols of masking to keep contagion at bay. But the people of St. Thomas, a small railway city in southwestern Ontario two hours from Detroit, are a resilient bunch.

The city made a name for itself in the auto industry with manufacturing, and bounced back from the economic downturn in 2008 with new development in food processing and advanced manufacturing. Forestry has also opened up job creation, with an investment of almost $50 million in the new Elelment5 cross-laminated timber plant. And the first full-service hotel in the city limits, the Holiday Inn Express, will start construction soon.

The people of St. Thomas don’t shy away from making lemonade out of lemons, or beer out of hops, for that matter (they have some great craft breweries), so COVID-19 hasn’t slowed housing and business growth, or dampened community pride. Just check out the hashtag #stthomasproud on social for all the positive vibes. The award-winning city campaign was launched six years ago and is still going strong.

“As far as building and construction goes in the community, 2019 was our best year ever,” says Sean Dyke, CEO of the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation (EDC) that drives business and tourism initiatives. “When the pandemic hit, I think we all just assumed it was going to be a bit of an off year. We were wrong. There was actually about $35 million more construction in 2020 than there was in 2019, in combined industrial, commercial and residential.”

What’s so appealing? Plenty. St. Thomas offers a relaxed lifestyle that’s safe, quiet and culturally interesting with arts-based businesses, boutique shops, and craft food producers setting up shop. There’s a lower cost of living, plenty of ways to stay active and there’s nature right at your doorstop.

The city’s got “so much more life” than urban centers, Dyke explains. Indeed, this phrase is the tagline for some new marketing billboards and communications.

“Living and working in St. Thomas means no waiting in traffic – it means you can be home in time for dinner, without worrying about bigger City traffic,” he says. He’s been a resident for 16 years, raising three children and seeing them take full advantage of community sports and activities. “This community offers many of the same cultural and recreational opportunities found in larger centres, but without the higher costs.”

And Dyke and his team are determined to make life in St. Thomas enjoyable and prosperous, even in the darkest of days.

In fact, efforts by the St. Thomas EDC to mitigate the impact of the pandemic shutdowns have earned them a provincial award of excellence. The team took a grassroots approach to helping small and medium-sized businesses with financial assistance, retail website enhancements, and innovation to change up what some businesses were offering to help them stay afloat during COVID.

Wildflowers Farm, for example, which grows botanicals and hosts wellness workshops in a picturesque country setting, created a farmers’ market for goods and edibles with the EDC’s support at a time when most farmers’ markets in the area had curtailed activities.

Saint T Fashion and Hair Design is another success story. The downtown store was mainly a clothing shop offering popular streetwear like hoodies, T-shirts and ball caps with variations of the Saint T logo that is all about promoting hometown St. Thomas pride. Hip hop artists Choclair and Maestro Fresh Wes are fans of the line.

The space also has a barbershop known for artistic razor designs. The EDC helped with funding and mentorship to reconfigure the store so hair services could continue and people could also shop for clothing. In even better news, Saint T has opened another downtown location and additional stores in the surrounding area.

“For a store that started off pretty small, they’ve really expanded significantly. Even in other communities, they’re marketing the Saint T brand, which helps to spread the local community pride we’ve been pushing for the better part of the last decade,” says Dyke. “We have a very passionate team here at the EDC who are truly driven to make change in the community. And when you can see it happen, it makes it so much more fun.”

The EDC Team also launched an online portal during the pandemic for area artists to sell their work – a substantial boost for those who didn’t have an online store – and purchased over $20,000 in products from local producers, to be sold in specialty duffel bags and backpacks, which included honey, coffee, snacks and small-batch brews, among other items – all good things to have on hand when stuck at home.

Another initiative was the expanded Track to the Future mural program. Artists created about a dozen murals through the downtown over the past year as a way to bring life and colour to St. Thomas, especially important at a time when people were limited to outdoor attractions.

There’s a landscape of brilliant poppies that covers the entire back of a building that looks right over the city’s memorial gardens. The graphic artist is internationally recognized Andrew Lewis from nearby London, Ontario, who is regularly commissioned by Canada Post to create illustrative stamps. This brings the total number of murals in the City to over 25, with more on the way!

And who doesn’t smile at floppy-eared elephants? Drawing on the local history with Jumbo the circus elephant, there are murals in the works that feature baby elephants for a family-friendly theme that will serve as part of a fun scavenger hunt for kids and adults alike as we come out of the pandemic into the new normal.

Also quickly becoming a key feature in the community is the St. Thomas Elevated Park. Much like the High Line in New York City, a private community group has turned a railway bridge into a park trail and event location for all to use, which ties in nicely with city’s railway heritage.

“There are a lot of impressive things going on with arts and culture in this community, and it’s something we want to keep pushing,” shares Dyke. “The city is also investing significantly in public art on roundabouts, which has been exceptionally popular. Most stunning so far is one of the largest outdoor pieces of public art in Canada, which was locally produced and installed in one of our roundabouts.” The installation is a dramatic steel locomotive that rises out of the center, called “Perseverance”. Last year, the city installed a giant soccer ball art piece in front of the newly developed 1Password Park.

These moves to be bold and courageous have all worked to deliver a huge boost to community morale and momentum. And that’s a silver lining.

“I’m expecting a good bounce back from the small business sector,” says Dyke. “Something that’s been really exciting to see through COVID is that our local community has been buying local. The traffic that we’re seeing at small businesses in town is excellent and I’m hoping that traction carries forward when things fully open up again.”

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