Where's the compromise? Old Town residents feel compromise rejected.
BY PENNY COLES
Those opposed to removing services from the downtown core - both individuals and groups - are angry they were not recognized as part of the process spelled out in a motion to defer the decision on the fate of the library and community centre for three months. But they intend to offer their help, welcome or not.
The motion made by Alderman Austin Kirkby Monday night and approved by Kirkby, Dave Lepp, Jamie Slingerland, Dennis Dick and Lord Mayor Art Viola, asks for a postponement on the relocation of the library and community centre to allow council to meet with the school board - Niagara District Secondary School has not been ruled out yet as a possible site for the library - and to allow council to complete further studies on future uses of the Court House.
Kirkby says it doesn't exclude the possibility residents could be consulted, but some of the 400 people who attended and spoke at a public meeting organized by the town last week are disturbed that no acknowledgement or response was made to their offers to help work towards compromise or alternatives - it was like that meeting hadn't happened.
The Chamber of Commerce is one of the organizations that has stated removing services from the downtown core could spell disaster for the Old Town, as it has in so many towns and cities across Canada. Their concerns have not been acknowledged or addressed, says board president Janice Thomson, one of those shocked by lack of response from aldermen - in fact the only response has been anger from town staff and the library board.
Monday night's council vote "resulted in an acceptable outcome," she said. "It is bitterly disappointing" that all the input from residents willing to serve on a committee to assist in compiling data to help council in their decision was completely ignored - their offer was not acknowledged or discussed.
The library board has responded to their concerns with a Old Town residents feel compromise rejected
harshly-worded letter criticizing the Chamber for requesting a study be conducted with the goal of keeping the library in its present location, improving accessibility and maximizing use of the available space. It accuses them of not first obtaining the facts, and says it is particularly disturbing that a "publicly funded body which purportedly represents the interests of the community would make a recommendation in regard to another publicly funded organization without making any effort to obtain the facts. You damage your own reputation and inadvertently cast aspersions on a respected member of the, business establishment in another community" (Chamberlain Architect Services, the author of the report).
Thomson's response indicates the Chamber - not a publicly funded body but one which receives money from the town for the services it provides - did have access to the report, "which is but one part of the evidence which touches on the issue. It is clear from the public debate which has been ongoing that other aspects, such as the life and vibrancy of the Old Town sector, will be impacted if the library should move."
TEMCO's concerns have also been ignored, and have drawn the ire of the library board - the town's own tourism management advisory committee has been cautioned not to release results of its recent survey, which contains a question concerning the fate of the library, until council has made its decision. To publish the results would "unfairly influence the decisions affecting the library."
The board's letter, sent anonymously to the Advance, says that if TEMCO persists in interfering with the political process, the library board would have to "seriously consider taking appropriate action."
TEMCO heritage representative Ken Douglas wouldn't comment on the letter, but he is disturbed that the town is not addressing the advisory committee's requests for actual costs and impact studies - Kirkby's motion asks for studies on potential uses for the Court House, not the impact of removing services.
The town has also not taken TEMCO up on their offer to elaborate further on their recommendations, Douglas said. And although there were some problems with the distribution of the survey, the results can still be considered reliable, he believes.
Ron Dale, who as superintendent of Parks Canada Historic Sites shares the Court House with the library, says the motion Kirkby made allows for anything from a bar to a retail store to move in. The library staff works under atrocious conditions, he agrees, "but what they want is the Rolls Royce" of library facilities. Instead they could have what they need, while keeping a small lending library and a revenue-producing research centre for historians and genealogists who come from out-of-town and would be willing to pay for their information. There are creative solutions that would serve the community better if council will look at them, he added.
Lord Mayor Art Viola, who called last Tuesday's community centre meeting "perhaps the largest public meeting ever witnessed in this town," said the message council received was loud and clear - a request to defer action, strong representation from the Old Town that essential services not be moved and that assistance be given to other communities that want or need a pool, library or community centre; the negative consequence of pushing ahead in a piece-meal fashion. He spoke of the benefits of a group recently formed called the Coalition for Old Town Advocacy, and asked that everyone work together for a positive solution.
Kirkby's motion, he said, will give council the time to look at solutions, and there is nothing to prevent those who want to be part of the process from coming forward and asking to be included.
Mary Jane Grant, representing the coalition, says the discussion back and forth Monday, with more time spent arguing about the motion than the library, was confusing, as was the outcome. "It's hard to understand what they did and even harder to understand why they did it," she said, of the rejection of some sort of ad hoc committee with a broad-based cross-section of representation, "by denying broad public input, council is delaying just to gather the facts they need to support the single option - the extraction of services."
So many people offered to help, and were totally ignored, she said. "It confirmed what we already know - that we have no voice." The coalition will continue to generate options and gather objective information," she added. "They have not asked for input, but that does not mean that they will not get it."
The three aldermen who voted against the motion wanted it defeated so the town could go back to square one and look at each issue separately. Alderman Rob Copeland passionately argued a new proposal be examined, saying the issue is splitting the community and splitting council. It's not something we can deal with lightly. If we make a decision tonight we have to live with it. I think we'll live to regret it."
Alderman Judy Rylands called the whole library process just short of "a fiasco."
The library decision should be treated like a decision to build a new home - find funding and a suitable location and then move. "In this case, the decision was made to move and then find the answers."
By making the decision prematurely and then looking for answers, "You have now created even more than ever 'us versus them, Old Town versus the rest of the municipality." She urged aldermen to defeat the motion, find some answers to the questions residents are asking, allow for more dialogue of council members, and look for a solution that will help everyone.
Alderman Terry Flynn, seen by some as the Old Town representative because he lives there, says he was elected to serve the community as a whole, but he did reflect long and hard on the library issue.
The town needs a facility for everyone in the community, and he believes an acceptable use can be found for the Court House, such as a meeting room.
He'd like to see a small volunteer library, the Chamber office and other town agencies, and the police using the Court House. He is confident council will find a compromise that will benefit the whole community, he says.
Kirkby says the focus should be on finding a use for the Court House that will bring residents back to the main street, such as a shoe store or antique wine store. "If we work together we can find some uses for that building."
It needs to be said one more time - services don't need to be moved
BY PENNY COLES
This week's town council discussion was confusing, in more ways than one.
The discussion of how to deal with the motion regarding the library, community centre and soccer fields - separate it, amend it, defeat it, discuss it, don't discuss it - back and forth until one audience member, Tom Braybrook, claimed "motion sickness -I needed Gravol," took up more time than any discussion about the issue itself - one that could seriously affect - or maybe not, but we have no way of knowing because it hasn't been studied - the future of the Old Town.
Aldermen who supported the motion, along with the Lord Mayor, say the deferral offers the chance for someone - council or an outside consultant - to study all the options. Yet it seems clear any option they plan to study begins with the premise that the library must move, when residents have pleaded with them to study alternatives, or build a new one, but without moving services from the downtown core. One wonders why all the business organizations in town are being ignored, why some aldermen refuse to acknowledge the danger to a downtown core if services are removed, when communities across the country are attempting to redress the harm that has been done by unwitting planners who thought for decades they were on the right track. Those communities probably had parking problems too. Now they would love to have parking problems.
The future of the community centre was left tied in with the library decision, despite the sensible alternative offered by three aldermen to discuss them separately. That means, as near as I can tell, that the building, which according to parks and recreation director Clive Buist has nothing wrong with it other than a floor that needs fixing for about $10,000 - will probably be torn down and replaced on the town's Regional Road 55 property, because the library is short of space.
The claim by one alderman that the community centre is "woefully inadequate" seems a slight exaggeration - it was entirely adequate to hold 400 people last week. Other possible explanations seem fanciful - we have accessible meeting rooms in Virgil, at the arena, in St. Davids by renting the Lions' Hall, and in Queenston at the Community Centre. Some aldermen have said a community centre with a stage would be nice, but we have a Black Box Theatre in Niagara District Secondary School, and I can't recall it ever being used by the town. As for a meeting place for the young people, the Kinsmen have tried that with the Scout Hall. Young people looking for somewhere to hang out seem to prefer the Donut Diner, or the Village Green or Mary Street parking lots. Ask them what they want and they would more likely say a skate-boarding park, but if a meeting room is the answer then why not try the arena first and see if there is any interest among the youth of our community, before building something that may not appeal to them. Want a gymnasium? There are several available for rental, including two at Niagara District Secondary School Are they so popular they are always occupied?
Do we need a new community centre? It appears more to the point that we need the cash from either selling off the property (and who would want it, unless the Prince of Wales Hotel would like a five-diamond parking lot) or creating revenue from parking spaces. Either way, we're back to turning over town-owned property to allow for more tourists' cars.
It would appear that three aldermen, Allen Snider, Judy Rylands and Rob Copeland, who had no chance of winning, were on the most sensible track at Monday's council meeting - go back to square one and examine each issue separately.
It has been said so many times, there are answers, solutions, compromises, and alternatives galore being offered -and I'm not sure why anyone bothers, because it's obvious nobody is listening. You don't hear what you don't want to hear, and that can be said of those on both sides of the argument. That's why a task force seemed so sensible.
All of our elected representatives are good, decent people, with the welfare of the town at heart. But how can they be so sure they are right, in the face of such opposition?
Some of those opposed have said they will keep up efforts to convince aldermen there are alternatives, including the coalition who brought forward a proposal that would see a new library, preferably in NDSS, and one at the Court House. They have little chance of being heard. Why bother? When all is said and done, they at least know they tried.