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Here’s to Saint John’s new swagger, and a nifty waterfront container village

 

It’s almost dusk when I pull into the port city of Saint John, N.B. The summer sun is still warming my bare shoulders as I dash from Hilton Saint John to the animated harbourfront to visit Area 506 Waterfront Container Village, a “sea can” development that opened in June 2022, dramatically changing the waterfront of Canada’s oldest incorporated city.

It’s Saturday night, August long weekend, and I’ve come for adventure. I’m keen to see the transformation of a parking lot into a funky, season-long destination of shipping containers home to retail shops, performance space, street art, and a three-level rooftop patio which provides enviable views of the Bay of Fundy.

Food trucks line Water Street, people mill, and the air feels thick with promise. Music pulses down the horizon as bands command part of the waterfront for Area 506, New Brunswick Day’s marquee music and arts festival. I’m already crushing on the vibe, the city, the soul, as I step into one section of the container village, Graffiti Alley. Here, I catch my first glimpse of its soaring sea cans splashed with playful pops of colour. These are the stylings of international muralists, including I AM EELCO from the Netherlands and Colombia’s LeDania.

Against this joyous backdrop, vendors are set up in the containers, selling ice cream, donuts, coffee, and other goodies in an area fast becoming the most photographed place in New Brunswick.

“It creates this cool vibe,” says Ray Gracewood, Area 506 president and committee chair and a key figure in the container village. A partnership between a music festival and Port Saint John created this permanent space to celebrate all things stylish about the city.         

The partnership was born from port authority and Area 506 festival management each seeing massive potential in the waterfront. In November 2022, Area 506 Waterfront Village received national accolades for its efforts, winning the “innovator of the year” prize at the Tourism Industry Association’s 2022 Canadian Tourism Awards.


First greeting

The container village, adjacent the Marco Polo Cruise Terminal and Diamond Jubilee Terminal, is the first thing passengers  see as they disembark from the 80 or so cruise ships arriving here annually.

It consists of three main sections: Graffiti Alley, Retail Row — where twinkling white string lights sparkle between the ocean-hued blue and green containers housing about 40 businesses, many emphasizing local products — and an event space with stage, waterfront container bar, and rooftop viewing deck.

Adding to the ambiance are outdoor games, another popular selfie spot under the commissioned UFO mural by Canadian artist Mique Michelle, frequent pop-up vendors, and a season-long entertainment lineup that includes concerts, movies, and salsa nights. 

“It’s like stepping into opportunity,” says Gracewood, “embracing what is special about a port city.”

Happening spot

Response has been through the roof.

“It’s been so good,” says Gracewood. “The energy around it. The repeat visitation. It’s been incredible. We couldn’t have asked for better. It’s a place where people want to be.”

Vibrancy and diversity are part of the draw. “It’s been a long time since Saint John had some swagger,” says Gracewood.

There’s a new confidence in the city. “What I like is that it’s for all to enjoy,” says Natalie Allaby, Port Saint John cruise development manager, who says the idea for a container village was floated a few years back. But with the high cost, they weren’t ready to jump. Around the same time, Gracewood, who founded the Area 506 musical festival in 2016, and his group were wondering if the festival’s weekend shipping container vendor village could become something bigger.

Soon the two groups were talking, eventually getting federal and provincial money. “It really makes me proud to be a Saint Johner,” says Allaby. “When I’m there, I think this is cool, there’s interesting vendors, an entertainment zone, shopping, food. I really feel it’s Saint John’s time to shine.”

Allaby says Saint John is a cruise success story. The port can accommodate up to three ships, and on triple-ship days — there were six last year — an influx of 10,000 people arrive. In 2019, before COVID upended the cruising, the industry tallied $68 million in local economic impacts.

The Fundy Quay redevelopment project along the harbourfront is also getting people excited. As is a renaissance in Saint John’s Uptown: historic brick buildings are becoming hip bars, restaurants, galleries, and shops all while maintaining architectural character. Visitors can find 80 bars and restaurants within a span of 10 blocks, an easy 10-minute walk from the cruise ship terminal.

 

Village people

The container village was a good decision, says Ali Engin, who came to Canada from Turkey 10 years ago, and in August of 2022 began operating Mediterranean Living in Retail Row.

“I am so happy here, being in the container village, and also in Saint John,” he says. “Uptown is unique, it has a nice vibe. Business has been really good.” He sells Turkish tapestries, cushion covers, ceramic bowls, jewellery, aprons and confections. He also offers tarot readings, learned from his grandmother in Istanbul.

It’s a similar sentiment over at Together Designs where artisans Lynn Rice and Shelley Bartlett of Little Urban Apothecary are staffing the container business, representing 17 local artists (the youngest is 11 years old) selling handmade New Brunswick delights, including earrings, skincare products, macrame designs, scarves, and other unique items. 

“It’s been great. There’s a lot of tourists as well as locals,” says Lynn Rice. “We have had lots of return people and plenty of positive feedback.”

As for Gracewood? He’s looking forward to seeing what’s next: “When there is potential, there’s unlimited possibility.
It’s fun.”  

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