Jon has written numerous articles and guest columns on many diverse subjects. Below is just one example of a recent Calgary Herald article discussing how community revitalization in the Marda Loop got started.
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Lord: Why the smell of success wafts through Marda Loop
BY JON LORD, CALGARY HERALD DECEMBER 12, 2011
As I walk across the parking lot toward my Casablanca Video store in the south-west community of Marda Loop, I can smell the rich aroma of coffee in the morning air, along with a hint of freshly baked cookies and the unmistakable scent of bacon cooking.
It is all making me very hungry. It also causes me to reflect on just how many new restaurants have opened up here in the past few years, causing such a sensory delight even this early in the morning.
Marda Loop is an exciting district these days. Lots of neat shops, knick-knacks, eye glasses and doggy treats, not to mention, pubs and exotic cuisine almost everywhere you look. We've had a banquet of enthusiastic entrepreneurs and shops popping up everywhere.
There's Counterpoint Dance Academy, Murmur gift store, Globefish Sushi, Narah Pan-Arabian Cafe and the original Original Joe's Restaurant & Bar. We have a Marda Loop Social Justice Film Festival and an Equilibrium Wellness boot camp. If your car needs fixing, there's Mike's Auto. If your physique needs fixing, there's Pro Bodies gym. If your hair needs fixing - well, there's at least eight great shops to choose from. In fact, for whatever you are looking for, there are shops and services down here to delight just about anyone looking for anything.
It wasn't always this way. When I first moved back to this district as the upstart new kid on the block, I had visions of grandeur as most entrepreneurs do. My store was promoting cutting-edge technologies - things called video cassettes, Nintendo games, compact discs - but instead of instant riches, it was a really tough go instead. Most of the residents in the neighbourhood weren't familiar with the shops down here and were shopping at faraway malls instead, and the federal government had just introduced the National Energy Program. We needed some good ideas to start getting the people who lived here to start shopping locally instead, where it would actually be saving them a lot of money if they stopped to think about the value of time. (And in my mind, what people thought they were saving driving an hour to shop, they were losing in property values in their deteriorating neighbour-hoods).
Coming from a home-stead, I was familiar with what also seemed to be missing in this slowly deteriorating inner-city neighbourhood - a sense of community, of neighbours helping neighbours. Where I grew up, we didn't have the social problems so many cities seem to have - a strong community just takes care of things. I realized that city people here probably didn't even know what they were missing, likely having never experienced life in a tightly knit community where everybody knows everybody. I began to reflect on what was wrong with life in the big, anonymous city - and what we might be able to do about that.
I soon began spouting off on urban redesign themes, such as building "living rooms" in the community (like local pubs), where people could get out of their houses at night and mingle and mix and meet, instead of just "bedroom communities," where people didn't even know their next door neighbours and only came home to sleep. I talked about building small towns within the larger city, centring on local small business districts as a backbone.
"Building communities" was strange talk in this neighbourhood back then - nothing much had changed here since the '50s (and it seemed like some folks didn't want any changes, either). It was nice to talk about such things, but the reality was, back then, we didn't have a single pub - and outside of my store, Mac's and a Chinese restaurant down the block, it was sure dark here at night. Rent was cheap, but there obviously was a reason for that. We needed some solutions.
Well, as I've said many times since, if you want something done, just get the right small business entrepreneurs involved. Real entrepreneurs are people who are professional troubleshooters for a living - their businesses won't survive otherwise. They are pragmatic and visionary by definition. Sometimes, even then, their businesses don't always survive, but they still are pretty exceptional people and problem-solvers regardless.
I started walking around the neighbourhood and introducing myself to see what kind of bright lights we might have who might want to help out.
So that's how we ended up organizing one of the first business revitalization zones in Alberta. Then, we invented the first Alberta BRZ street festival (5,000 people out the first year). We renamed the district from just South Calgary to Marda Loop and set out to plant flowers, paint store-fronts, fix sidewalks and put out some nice benches. In short, we wanted the neighbour-hood to notice that we were open for business, we promoted shopping locally, and we worked hard to get the word out, and to get new businesses to move in.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Yes, Marda Loop is an exciting district now - and you can tell it's a major success because of the traffic problems and the residential housing price tags and all the parking squabbles. That is the unfortunate downside of having a neighbourhood everyone wants to live in. Clearly, people are clamouring to become Marda Loopians now, and I certainly can't blame them. Who wouldn't want to live in such a great neighbour-hood!
Jon Lord is president of Casablanca Video and a former city alderman and MLA.
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