chamber logo 2020 270The Meaford downtown core was struggling long before our current circumstances. We all intuitively understand that if the downtown core of the Town of Meaford is vibrant and prosperous, we will sell more art in Griersville, more wine and custom furniture in the Irish Block, and more farm produce in Hoath Head, yet we cannot resist the ease, selection, and price offered online. So Meaford businesses, as in so many other communities, struggle. Yet there are some notable successes we can emulate.

Meaford possesses attributes that many other communities do not, and these offer us an opportunity to reinvent the downtown core into something special, to make it the envy of the south shore of Georgian Bay. We have space and we have atmosphere. We have a market square in the centre of our business and shopping district in full view of a major road. We have a beautiful harbour, a long waterfront with multiple beaches, and the small town feel that so many covet, all anchored by the Meaford Hall.

Recognizing our strengths, the amazing potential that Meaford possesses, and the need to do something with it before it might be lost to non-complementary development, an Events Committee was assembled at the end of last year. With representation from the Meaford Chamber of Commerce, BIA, and Municipality, we began examining how to make our Market Square a hub of activity and culture twelve months a year, to draw people - and their dollars - in, starting this summer.

For the longer term, we began modelling our vision on the European market square. Those beautiful expanses of open spaces bedecked with flowers, trees, seating, and water features, surrounded by restaurants, cafés, and shops, and most importantly, designed for the pedestrian.

Then came COVID-19.

COVID-19 has impacted all businesses, but not equally. While a handful are realizing record profits or were able to quickly adapt, others are largely untouched. Many, however, are suffering terribly.

In response, the Chamber of Commerce immediately began to look for ways to assist our businesses, beginning by keeping our doors open, speaking to our members, and organizing a Town Hall with our MP and MPP. We then supported the Municipality in expanding and transforming the Events Committee into an Economic Recovery Committee. That committee is currently working on more than a dozen initiatives and actions, and open to more great ideas. Among the first items to be realized was the establishment of an electronic Job Board on the Meaford Chamber website and the creation of the eCommerce Assistance Program. This program, funded by the Municipality and administered by the Chamber, aims to assist Meaford retailers to establish an online sales capability (eCommerce).

Some other active areas of work include beautifying our downtown, facilitating retail curb side pick-up, which may require temporary adjustments to parking patterns within the downtown core, the sourcing of economical PPE for businesses, producing signage and banners shouting out which shops are open and making the BIA look alive, and exploring the expansion and creation of outdoor restaurant and cafe seating in the face of COVID- mandated social distancing restrictions.

And so I return to the original work of the Events Committee. I think the market square and our open spaces represent real opportunities for our downtown restaurants and businesses to expand outdoors, at least for the summer months, and for the rest of us to get out of our homes, safely. Maybe we can make Meaford more pedestrian-friendly than ever, a place where residents and tourists want to be, to walk with their family or dog, shop, smell the fresh lake air, or sip their coffee, wine, or pint, all the while respecting social distancing guidelines.

If nothing else, COVID has inspired people and governments to move quickly to implement practically-minded solutions to very real problems. There are many questions to address and hurdles to overcome, but it is possible that COVID may allow us to trial some of our ideas for a future Meaford, now.