How Doors Open Ontario activates the province’s communities

The Canadian Niagara Power Generating Station was opened for a special Doors Open weekend on October 26-27, 2019. (Photo: Niagara Parks)

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Oct 01, 2019

Photo: The Canadian Niagara Power Generating Station was opened for a special Doors Open weekend on October 26-27, 2019. (Photo: Niagara Parks)

The Ontario Heritage Trust’s Doors Open Ontario program works with communities and partners to open the doors, gates and courtyards of Ontario’s most unique and fascinating cultural sites in order to encourage Ontarians to discover the stories inside. From historical houses to modern marvels of construction, Doors Open Ontario showcases the buildings, natural spaces, infrastructure and cultural landscapes that shape and define our communities. The program encourages Ontarians to experience their history up close, behind the doors of each participating site, and nurtures pride in our exceptional heritage and contemporary places.

Inspired by European Heritage Days, the Trust has worked since 2002 to activate a cross-provincial scope of Doors Open events. This regional approach makes it unique in North America. The Trust launched the program to create interest, awareness and excitement about Ontario’s heritage.

From major cities like Toronto or Ottawa to predominantly rural places such as Dutton Dunwich – and many in between – Ontario’s diverse range of people and communities are represented in the program. In fact, since the program began, over 93 per cent of Ontarians live in a community that has hosted Doors Open Ontario. Approximately 500,000 people take part in Doors Open Ontario each year, and nearly 8.5 million people have visited Doors Open Ontario events since the program began.

Each event is free, and thus uniquely accessible to the general public. This community exploration creates opportunities for locals to discover their home through a tourist’s point of view, and for non-locals to discover different communities across the province and learn about what makes them wonderful.

Doors Open Ontario is a valuable tool for the economic development of communities around Ontario. It generates a cross-provincial economic impact effect of over $11 million dollars per year. Since the program began, it has generated over $130 million dollars in visitor spending. While visitors to each Doors Open event are predominantly local, there is a sizeable portion of non-local tourists as well – in fact, your average visitor to a Doors Open Ontario event visits two events each year. Visitors predominantly spend on food/restaurants when they visit Doors Open Ontario events. This activity creates opportunities for convergence with historical downtown commercial areas in communities across Ontario, areas where many Doors Open Ontario sites are typically concentrated, to boost their business for a day or weekend.

Each year, the program features 900 to 1,200 individual sites throughout Ontario. Sites are places – not just buildings, and not just old ones either. Sites can be churches or museums – but also craft breweries and local businesses. Sites need not be traditional heritage buildings, though these are the program’s valuable roots. Doors Open Waterloo Region features innovative technology start-ups that have adaptively reused buildings in the municipality’s respective cores and given them dynamic new purpose, such as the Communitech Hub or North Inc. Businesses like these that participate have an opportunity for community engagement. Sites can also include natural heritage properties, such as trails or conservation areas – like the Shadow Lake Centre in Whitchurch-Stouffville. Sites can be walking tours, such as Doors Open Guelph’s Arts Walks or Sharing Guelph’s Stories Initiative, which activate interest in local heritage through partnerships with local arts and culture networks. Sites can even be those places where a building used to be. Doors Open London, for example, activates parking lots with performances and stories of the buildings, people and businesses once present there.

Each year, a theme inspires the Trust and its partners’ approach to the program. In 2019, the theme of communication saw the doors open to film and television studios across Ontario, such as NUVO Network in Doors Open Burlington and Doors Open Halton Region.

Typically, the most popular sites are those that are normally closed to the public – only open for Doors Open Ontario. Infrastructure sites of this nature, such as Doors Open Toronto’s R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant and the GO Whitby Maintenance Facility in Doors Open Whitby activate a behind-the-scenes enthusiasm that is at the root of much of the program’s appeal. One site, if special enough, can even serve as a marquee magnet to attract non-local visitors to a community that encourages knock-on visitation at other participating sites in the event, such as the David Dunlap Observatory in Doors Open Richmond Hill.

One of the program’s most exceptional sites is in Doors Open Quinte West – Research Casting International – which appears on the outside to be a nondescript warehouse. On the inside, however, it is a “dinosaur factory.” The massive space features enormous casts of paleontological fossils destined for natural history museums across the world, including the Smithsonian. The program ensures that the public can access, discover and appreciate special places like these – all across the province.

The Trust relies on its indispensable partners across the province to deliver this program – from municipalities, regions, heritage councils and heritage organizations. The program also relies on its vast network of volunteers, mobilized to organize and then successfully deliver these events. Without these volunteers, Doors Open Ontario would not be possible. In 2018, organizers and day-of volunteers contributed over 32,000 hours to support Doors Open Ontario!

The program continues to evolve, generating new and exciting formats and attracting new audiences. As the program approaches its 20th anniversary in 2021, we are thinking and listening to our friends and partners about how to continue to grow the program. Doors Open Ontario can continue to see growth by: targeting the lucrative GTA-based day-tripping market with millennials and young families in search of interesting and engaging experiences and exciting photo opportunities; reaching Ontarians digitally; developing innovative programming experiences at participating sites and pop-up activations in new or lapsed communities; and, continuing to incorporate places of interest beyond traditional heritage properties.

Interest in Doors Open Ontario events continues to grow. In 2019, many communities have seen increased and even record visitation. We are inspired by the successes of the past 18 years, grateful for the work and partnerships made along the way, and excited to work together to make Ontario open for you to discover, through Doors Open Ontario.