The Cirque du Soleil had plenty of options when it considered where to build its corporate headquarters, but it chose to invest $100-million in a barren site on the edge of a giant garbage dump in the Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Michel.
"Every little municipality, every mayor wanted Cirque du Soleil. We really chose the worst compared to the others," says Gaétan Morency, vice-president of citizenship. But the company, which creates shows seen by millions of people around the world, had unusual criteria for its decision. "We wanted to help a community grow and be proud again," Mr. Morency says.
In the 15 years since it moved in, Cirque du Soleil has created jobs for young people in a neighbourhood with a history of gang violence and where many families live in poverty. It has launched a program in the local schools and is one of the partners in TOHU, a neighbourhood cultural centre with a circular stage that offers regular performances. The headquarters has expanded twice with new additions in 2001 and 2007.
But far fewer businesses have followed the company into the area than Mr. Morency expected. "It is not an easy neighbourhood, maybe that is why it reacts less rapidly," he says.
Saint-Michel is in the north end of Montreal and was a separate municipality until the mid-1960s. The Autoroute Metropolitaine, a major highway also known as the 40, cuts through it connecting Montreal to Quebec City.
The area around the Cirque du Soleil headquarters feels windswept and far emptier than the busy streets in many other parts of Montreal even though 2,000 people work at the headquarters and all the artists hired by Cirque come for preparatory training sessions that can last several months. As well, thousands of people attend regular shows and events at TOHU.
"We have seen a few retail stores, and a new restaurant in front. But it closed at the end of the summer," Mr. Morency says.
But that may be about to change.
In neighbourhoods closer to downtown, such as the Plateau-Mont-Royal, industrial buildings once used by the garment and textile industry have been converted into offices or condominiums, says Jordan Perlis, an agent with Colliers International in Montreal.
This wave of development is now spreading north, toward Saint-Michel, fuelled in part by the demand of the city's growing video game industry.
"I am hoping that trend will continue," says Mr. Perlis, who is seeking commercial tenants for a building in the neighbourhood. The presence of Cirque du Soleil gives the area a "level of credibility," he adds.
Pierre Durocher, who works with the non-profit community organization Vivre Saint-Michel en Santé, says Cirque du Soleil has helped to restore the pride of a community that had been in steady decline for years. But the effort to turn the neighbourhood around began before the company arrived, Mr. Durocher says.
One of the top priorities of residents was getting the city to stop throwing household waste into the old Miron quarry. After the Second World War, the limestone quarry was a source of pride and jobs in the neighbourhood. But then the city began dumping its garbage there. The stench helped to define Saint-Michel as the home of one of largest urban landfills in the country.
Cirque du Soleil helped to push the municipal government to stop dumping in the quarry in 2000 and to adopt an ambitious plan to turn the dump into a park with an artificial lake and bike paths. Now officially called the Saint-Michel Environmental Complex, the two-square-kilometre park is slowly being transformed. Grass grows on what used to be mounds of refuse. Gas from the decomposing garbage that once leaked into local basements is now collected by a network of pipes sunk into the garbage and burned by a Biothermica power plant to produce electricity.
"It was all part of us coming here, that the site would be managed," Mr. Morency says. "Now, there is no more landfill going in."
The park, to be completed in 2020, will change the feel of the neighbourhood, Mr. Durocher adds, and should attract developers and businesses.
Worried that people living in Saint-Michel will get pushed out by higher housing prices, he is working with others in the community on plans to prevent that from happening. They want to encourage the development of co-operative housing and they also have a scheme to help residents become homeowners.
Mr. Morency is proud of the social and cultural contributions Cirque du Soleil makes to Saint-Michel.
All the original landscaping was done by young people as part of a project with the Montreal police department. TOHU, the cultural centre, also offers regular work to locals. "It creates an alternative for those young people, from being in a street gang," Mr. Morency says.
Cirque du Soleil has offered programming in local schools for seven years, which has helped it become rooted in the community.
"We have always strived to be a neighbour of choice. To be a neighbour of choice you have to meet your neighbours and know them and see what their issues are," Mr. Morency says. "We never had graffiti on any of our buildings because they feel part of it."
He thinks one of the company's biggest contributions has been in changing the way residents think about their neighbourhood.
"Instead of being the landfill neighbourhood, it is the Cirque du Soleil neighbourhood. That's a very big difference."
Mr. Durocher doesn't go quite that far. There is more to Saint-Michel than the Cirque du Soleil, and the community had already began its long, slow climb upward before the company built its headquarters here. But he is grateful for all it has done.
"They have played a very positive role."
The Cirque complex
The Montreal headquarters is the heart of the Cirque du Soleil's artistic enterprise.
It is where shows are developed, where costumes, wigs and outrageous clown shoes are crafted and where the performers come from around the world to learn their routines and how to apply their own makeup. The complex is three buildings in one. The first, known as the studio, was finished in 1997 and holds three acrobatic training rooms, with trapezes and built-in trampolinesthat send performers flying up past the office windows of the people in charge of getting the shows on the road.
An addition called the Ateliers was added in 2001. This is where master shoemakers, milliners, wig makers and carpenters construct the props and costumes for every show.
A third wing, called le Mat, or the mast, was added in 2007 to address a need for more administrative space and has eight floors of offices. A separate building, finished in 2003, is where many of the artists are housed when they visit Montreal.