Redeveloping Owen Sound’s Waterfront

You might think, considering the invitation from city council earlier this week for the public to come forward with ideas about redeveloping the waterfront, that little if any public discussion or visioning has already gone into what a revitalized harbour area should look like.

Nothing could be further from the truth, though you’d never know it from the redevelopment that’s already taken place that anybody has been paying attention to ideas and policies discussed and put in place more than a decade ago.

The boxy Shoppers Drug Mart store and Service Ontario buildings on the east side, the cold, copper-plated edifice of the new area public health unit headquarters on the west, and now the shockingly massive and visually disruptive family health team building still under construction have so far done nothing to turn the waterfront into a people-friendly, beautiful focal point of community activity envisioned in the mid 1990s. Nor have they helped transform what is arguably The Scenic City’s most precious natural resource into the tourist attraction it should be. And the way things are going they never will.

The city council of the time, prompted and inspired by Craig Curtis, Owen Sound’s former city manager, commissioned studies and held public meetings that in whole or in part took a close look at what to do along the waterfront. Curtis was a talented artist in his own right. I remember well one public meeting at the library where he showed what other cities in various parts of the world had done to turn their derelict, former industrial waterfronts into vibrant tourist destinations. Neglected old buildings had been transformed into picturesque venues for restaurants and boutiques, often featuring and selling local food and locally-made products. Durban, a medium-sized coastal city in South Africa, his former home, was once such place.

I was a Sun Times reporter at the time and covered that meeting. I took to driving to work from my home on the Bruce Peninsula so I travelled along 1st Ave. West. I was fascinated by the possibilities. In those days the former Black Clawson Kennedy buildings were still there. It struck me those buildings could be redeveloped, and that redevelopment could be a catalyst to get the process of revitalization started. I suppose I got carried away, and maybe my plans were a tad unrealistic. But I was going to set up a local farmers/vendors market featuring Grey-Bruce area products in one of the buildings. I hoped “The Owen Sound Harbour Market” would spark a process that might, within a few years, lead to all sorts of people coming forward with interesting concepts and ideas for building on Owen Sound’s Georgian Bay harbour heritage to make something truly picturesque and unique for the city, a waterfront that would have made a name for itself, even as an international destination. Owen Sound already had so much to offer: the Tom Thomson gallery, the home of Billy Bishop, a great public library, the Bruce Trail, Harrison Park, Summerfolk. All it needed was something to tie it all together, a splendidly revitalized waterfront, as city council and the community envisioned it at the time.

But my dream tripped over the problem of PCB contamination in the floor of the building that was to be a market, and a lack of financial resources to fix it.

That certainly didn’t mean that all the great possibilities for the waterfront ended. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had a sense, or should have had a sense of what might have been, what should have been.

But why in heaven’s name didn’t the former Grey-Owen Sound Museum go on the waterfront instead of way out there on the Owen Sound bypass, where that sprawling Grey Roots parking lot is almost always nearly empty?

Why didn’t Owen Sound’s new multi-million-dollar recreation centre with its Olympic-sized swimming pool and all go down by the waterfront? I remember former BCK property owner David Kagan, 94 years old at the time, asking me what I thought might be done with the biggest, most spacious BCK building. “It could be part of a big, new recreation centre,” I said at the time.

Instead the new regional centre at its ill-chosen location will further disrupt the flow of traffic through the city, with the help of a new set of traffic lights 10th Street needs like a hole in the head.

And by the way, while we’re on the subject, the recreational facilities now included in the new centre should have been part of the Bayshore Community Centre when it was built on the waterfront 28 years ago. Instead, the city took the cheap-skate approach and ended up with a semi-glorified hockey arena. Now city taxpayers are paying the price for that lack of vision.

More than a decade ago Owen Sound council, with input from interested citizens, envisioned a revitalized waterfront integrated closely with a beautified downtown. It was to be pedestrian-friendly, flowing along new walkways and trails beside the Sydenham River north to Kelso Beach, with lots of green space for parks, recreational activities, and special events.

Sure, there would be new or redeveloped buildings, but well-landscaped and designed to fit into the overall concept that would always take precedence. In the long run that approach would benefit everyone and gradually turn the Owen Sound downtown-waterfront into something special. And with that would come substantial socio-economic benefits. Imagine visitors drawn to the attractions of The Scenic City waterfront and finding links there to all the other reasons why Owen Sound is a destination in its own right, and a great place to live.

That was the vision. It’s still there, in Owen Sound’s existing Harbour and Downtown Urban Design/Master Plan Strategy and other policy documents. It doesn’t have to start all over again from scratch. It just needs to be remembered and followed, not ignored or given short shrift.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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