A process that began three years ago, before Covid put things on hold, has recently sprung back to life with a plan to enhance and develop Virden as a destination, a place for business and a town with a high quality of living.
About 150 people, including town councillors and staff, municipal representatives from the RM of Wallace-Woodworth, business people, and many citizens attended the Town of Virden Strategic Plan presentation by 13 Ways Inc. consultant Doug Griffiths.
To devise the new strategic plan Chief Community Builder, Griffiths, and his colleague on the Virden project, Consumer Behaviour Expert Heather Thomson, walked the town, interviewed 31 people and conducted three focus groups.
“I think, that of all the communities I have worked in, dozens and dozens, Virden is in the top three of communities with all the potential sitting there already. It just takes a little investment to get it off the ground," Griffiths said at the presentation.
The strategic plan includes four categories of focus: Business Growth and Prosperity, Communication, Socialization and Quality Services.
Business growth requires economic development for shovel-ready locations, attractive living (housing and amenities) for employers/employees, and projects as mundane but necessary as water and wastewater capacity studies.
The report says that Council believes better communication including to town citizens, to neighbouring municipalities and to the world at large is vital. He says communities need a consistent brand that businesses, investors and prospective residents recognize as vibrant and attractive. One of Griffiths’ key messages is not only to recognize the community’s identity, but to take pride in your own town.
He used the example of Nashville Tennessee which has long been known as Music City, but for years seemed to resist the brand that the rest of the world recognizes.
Griffiths stressed the importance socialization, of holding events and including the downtown in that scheme. He says housing within the downtown makes sense if there are also destinations like brew pubs, coffee shops and year-round downtown events. The strategic goal is to phase in a Downtown Revitalization Plan by 2026 which may include incentives for investment /location and even storefront appeal for downtown businesses.
The consultant talked about landscaping, noting that trees beautify Virden’s residential section but are strangely missing downtown.
A recreation master plan and active transportation (walking, biking) routes are part of delivering quality services within a town.
During a Q and A afterwards, about a handful of people questioned the boots on the ground process, the timeline to implement this strategic plan, and whether Griffiths would be available during the process.
Griffiths said that although his job was complete, he would be checking in with council.
He expressed optimism for community transformation.
“It’s the location.”
With Virden at the junction of two major highway routes, the Trans Canada and Highway 83 (Swan River, Manitoba to the Gulf of Mexico) it is an enviable position, however, expansion requires planning around these major routes.
He said the built history is significant.
“Downtown already has some of the aesthetics. You’ve got a great downtown core, an awesome history. I still think the theatre, connected to the train station, and the events that you can have … you’ve got beautiful neighbourhoods with lots of robust, mature trees, and you’ve got this amazing community feel.”
The attendance and the questions impressed the consultant. Griffiths said, “I have never been to an event that had this big a turnout for a strategic plan. You have everything going that can make sure your community is prosperous. That’s what your council brought us in for, was to put the plan in place that they can implement to make this happen.”
Someone asked, “Does the town have enough staff to implement this plan?” Griffiths agreed, “This is incredibly ambitious, but not unachievable.” To this end, the two consultants had held a session with the Virden council and staff where the wish list was fine-tuned.
“This meshes very well with the resources you have financially, with the people you have and with the time you have. It is the most robust, it’s pushing the town to its capacity.”
Someone pointed out there’s an election coming up this fall. Griffiths acknowledged that and said it’s important to keep enough council members to continue on the chosen path and see it through. “My biggest fear is that if too much changes after the next election, this plan dies.”
He says the plan that’s now in place “jives perfectly with what you need to do. It had buy-in by the people interviewed, the administration says they are capable of doing it and council is excited about it.”
Another member of the audience spoke up. Her questions brought applause: “My biggest question is, now what? And maybe we need to hear from the Town (council/administration). What are we going to see in the next month… six months? How can we help you? Where are we going from here?”
Griffiths said, “You are going to see a lot more communication from the Town, communicating this at public events, every chance they get.”
Councillor Whitney Baker said that now the information has been presented, the missing piece is the operational plan. “So that’s the next thing our administration needs to do is to build an operational plan that’s got timelines, who’s going to do it, how it’s going to get rolled out effectively so that we can communicate that to you guys… we want user groups to get involved.”
The Town of Virden Strategic Plan document has much more detail and is available on their website.