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Shane Murphy, owner of a hair salon in downtown Cambridge.Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

From Highway 401, this southwestern Ontario city looks like any suburban node along Canada's busiest freeway – a mishmash of big-box retail stores, low-rise hotels and giant hydro pylons.

But what could shape this community's future lies six kilometres to the south, in Galt, one of four municipalities amalgamated as Cambridge in 1973.

That hidden gem is Galt's core at the confluence of the Grand and Speed rivers. The charm of long-neglected 19th century limestone industrial buildings and stone and brick storefronts has caught the eye of private developers who, alone or with the local government, see potential returns from a rediscovered downtown.

"So many people fly by on the 401 and do not even know this exists – and I was one of them," says Landmark Group president Aaron Ciancone, whose company owns a roster of historic grist mills that have been converted into restaurants in southern Ontario. "When I drove into this downtown, I was flabbergasted. I thought, 'I can't believe this is in my own backyard.'"

Three months ago, Landmark re-opened the Cambridge Mill, a former grist mill that had failed as a steakhouse, as a posh restaurant, conference centre and wedding venue. Since purchasing the 1.2-hectare site in 2008, the company has invested $11.5-million to restore the historic character of the building, almost tripling usable floor space to 30,000 square feet, with glass and limestone additions overlooking the Grand River.

Mr. Ciancone estimates the Mill, which is a few blocks from downtown, is serving about 4,000 customers a week for restaurant meals, weddings and other events. Saturday weddings are sold out from May to December, 2012. The company also plans to add a hotel to the property.

Over on Main Street, David Gibson and Craig Beattie, partners in Perimeter Development Corp., have purchased eight properties that combine ground-floor retail and second-storey rental units with a renovation cost of $10-million to $13-million over the next couple of years.

For its part, the city has carried out a $1-million streetscape improvement on one block of Main Street, with another block pending, to install wider sidewalks, granite curbs and other amenities to attract pedestrians and limit truck traffic. Amid some controversy, the city put up $6-million (matched by the province and federal government) for a 500-seat performing arts complex at the south end of town. Drayton Entertainment, which runs professional theatres in four Ontario communities, will operate the new facility when it opens next year.

Meanwhile, developer Amir Klein purchased a seedy Main Street hotel from the city in 2007 for $115,000 and gutted the building. It now houses a Coffee Culture franchise on the ground floor and 12 residential units on the upper two floors. A few blocks away, Mr. Klein's AAK Construction Co. is in the home stretch of converting a former industrial stone building that overlooks the Grand River into 39 residential lofts, priced between $169,000 and $500,000.

"The future is downtown," says Mr. Klein. "People don't want to drive any more. They don't want to cut the grass and clear the snow. They want to be able to walk two minutes to the coffee shop and three minutes to the bank."

Mr. Gibson, who played an influential role in the transformation of uptown Waterloo, sees lifestyle trends favouring a rebirth of urban centres.

But he warns the process takes patience, critical mass and an orderly sequence of retail development to ensure momentum. By design, Perimeter purchased several buildings on Main Street to control the pace of redevelopment and attract its preferred type of "performing retailers," who can generate enough strong business activity to support expected rental costs in the high teens per square foot.

He also made a point of visiting city officials, including the mayor, to gauge their interest in his vision of downtown renewal.

"It takes a lot of players, and we all need to be on the same page," says Mr. Gibson, praising the city for its streetscape improvements, which were completed on time and on budget.

Despite renewed signs of life, developers warn a full downtown turnaround is some years away.

But Mayor Doug Craig is upbeat. "We have reached a turning point," he says. "We will see more and more activity by private interests taking place downtown." In 2010, the value of permits in Cambridge as a whole climbed to $327.7-million, up from $227.8-million in 2005.

Hair salon owner Shane Murphy, chair of the Galt Business Improvement Association, has worked on Main Street for three decades, witnessing its rise, fall and rise again.

"Thirty-two years ago it was an extremely vibrant, busy downtown," she says. "Like every city in North America, downtowns basically almost ceased to exist in the mall era."

Now, she observes, "people want to come down and walk to places again and spend the day. That is what we are focusing on."

The arrival of the University of Waterloo's school of architecture, which opened in 2004, marked the start of a revival for old Galt's downtown.

"It changed the mindset of people in Cambridge," says Tom Watson, a retired real estate company owner who helped campaign for the relocation of the school from the main Waterloo campus. "Instead of 'This is a place I don't want to go and live,' it changed to 'Things might evolve into something, and I wouldn't mind living downtown,'" he says of the attitude of local residents.

Born in Galt, Mr. Watson helped raised $12.5-million for the $30-million renovation of the building, a former tire plant on the Grand River. The balance came from the municipality, the province and the federal government.

Past revitalization efforts failed because they were done piecemeal, Mr. Watson says, and the current mix of private and public investment is generating a sense of momentum for a renewed core.

Rick Haldenby, the school of architecture's director, says collaboration is a key ingredient in what's unfolding in Galt. "Part of the success here is a deeper sense of partnership that includes not only the city and the developer, but the city, developers and public and private institutions working together for a common purpose."

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