From the comments that followed the news of his death this week, Milo Shantz has left behind an assortment of legacies.
Some cited his entrepreneurial acumen, some his philanthropy. Still others pointed to his support for faith-based organizations. His list of accomplishments was long. He certainly put St. Jacobs on the map. He was instrumental in bringing Habitat for Humanity to Canada. And helped many small businesses flourish, just to name a few.
The most visible of Shantz’s many achievements was the reshaping of St. Jacobs. It’s no exaggeration to say the village is what he made it. The restaurants and shops of the downtown have his fingerprints all over them. The influence is seen even more clearly a little bit further south on King Street, where his Mercedes Corp. owns the St. Jacobs and Waterloo Farmers’ Markets, the Ontario Livestock Exchange and the St. Jacobs Outlet Mall.
Together, the package that helps showcase what has become known as St. Jacobs Country and the rural, Mennonite-influenced lifestyle has made the area an international tourist destination.
While some may chafe at the thought Shantz saved a dying village – preferring instead that St. Jacobs had remained a quiet, bucolic location – there can be no doubt the community risked going the way of so many small, rural settlements: fading away.
Yes, there were more visitors and more traffic, and that meant change for the longtime residents. But the downtown was revitalized, and there were jobs for the people who lived there, including many students who passed through one or more of the Mercedes businesses.
Today, St. Jacobs is cited as a model for other small communities to follow.
St. Jacobs is a good example of what Fred Dahms, a retired University of Guelph geography professor who’s spent more than three decades researching the changing function of rural centres, calls a resort, retirement, amenity community. To be successful in this category, a town must be able to offer a combination of nice features and interesting heritage, such as local architecture or culture. And the community must be readily accessible to people from urban areas. Throw in some dynamic entrepreneurs who are willing to make the place a destination and you have a recipe for prosperity.
“What really killed many towns was the motorcar in the ‘30s – farmers could bypass their local service centre and go to a bigger town. They’d skip St. Jacobs and go to Elmira, go to Kitchener-Waterloo,” he said following the release of a book about Ontario towns.
“Many of these places that were bypassed were left with all kinds of wonderful housing stocks-big, old houses-as well as really good downtown buildings, nice old hotels, beautiful churches and so on,” he said. “Settlements that have some combination of heritage architecture, entrepreneurs such as Milo Shantz in St. Jacobs, access, rural ambiance or amenities have done well.”
Channeling his entrepreneurial talents into ventures with a community benefit, Shantz is remembered as someone who was driven by a desire to see his successes translate into a greater good. A fitting legacy.