Redemption and renewal

One of the greater observances while getting older is how much things change and how quickly memories fade.

A recent tour over the holidays through parts of Guelph we haven’t travelled for some time made us a little puzzled over the changes in the landscape. An old restaurant was levelled, an automotive repair depot had been demolished and numerous other things locals might consider landmarks were gone.

Perhaps we were just catching up on yesterday’s News, but we were left with a feeling that we have had a few times before.

A similar experience struck us as the land on Woodlawn Road in Guelph was re-developed, first for Home Depot and second for the Walmart and associated stores. A once successful restaurant and dance hall was located in that part of town, as well as other, smaller commercial and industrial operations. Renewal was brought about only by their destruction.

Most small towns now closing in on two centuries of development have seen those changes too. Tragically, many would argue, much of our built-up heritage suffered the fate of a wrecking ball before its significance was realized or appreciated. Valuable main street properties at busy intersections generally succumbed to the new ways 30 and 40 years ago. Flat roofed boxes or plainly designed concrete bunkers replaced multi-storey brick and cut stone facades adorned with fancy trim and glass. Renewal came on those occasions with a sizeable loss to the host communities viewed only through the prism of time.

There are, however, delightful moments of redemption.

The directors of these moments are to be heralded, for without their vision, selfless sacrifice in time and finance and a touch of sentiment for making old new again, built history would perish.

That was most evident to us 15 years ago or so, when we went to the Netherlands. There, amidst building’s centuries old, contractors essentially gutted the interior of a stone building, and gave it an overhaul. At that time, the inclination here in Canada would have been to level it and start fresh.

We witnessed a similar thing on a trip to China last fall. While the Chinese certainly have no qualms about razing and building, a downtown multi-storey structure was being renovated. The dirt and rubble exiting the building one pail at a time bore the smell of old, as in ancient old.

Closer to home, there have been numerous cases of old buildings being reborn. We are acquainted intimately with three such properties: one the old log house on our farm, and the other two coincidentally being old offices of our operation turned into restaurants – one in Fergus, the other in Drayton.

Scads of other examples exist, where new stores and businesses have been retrofitted and blended with a curious mix of old and new. The old Drayton town hall became the Drayton Festival Theatre.

In Fergus, the Beatty Bros. building on the Grand River known to most as the Fergus Market is now the Fergus Marketplace; the original Thomson furniture store is now the Made in Holland store; the James Russell and Sons store is now the General Store.

In Elora, the main street across from the Legion stands as an example of incredible care taken to blend old and new. A community of devoted businesspeople who understand heritage and culture can make some pretty amazing things happen.

A fire on Mill Street in Elora in the 1990s could have led to a total demolition and a hole in the historic street. Instead, the shells were kept in place and the interiors refurbished.

In Harriston, the old train station now serves as a seniors’ centre, and the Palmerston train station became a railway museum with a park built around it.

In Mount Forest, the old post office was turned into a town hall, and today serves as the community’s archives.

Harriston’s Crossroads Community Church, was created from the former Canada Packers cheese plant.

Of course, that activity is only successful when supported by local councils and their staff. In many of the examples cited, building officials were noted as being excellent to deal with. But we see the need to go further with that assistance.

The County of Wellington and its member municipalities should tackle the issue of redemption and renewal as it relates to urban centres.

It might be concluded fairly quickly that these policies are the first building block for efforts in the field of real economic development so lacking in communities today.