Prosperity does not descend on Canadian communities by accident, but through the hard work and determination of its visionary residents. One living example of Canadian resourcefulness is a community in the shadow of one of the world's natural wonders.
Niagara Falls is one of Canada's most famous attractions and has long been one of the main reasons visitors travel to Ontario's Niagara Peninsula. As the area's economy has moved away from manufacturing and heavy industry, communities on the Peninsula have undergone transformations themselves, usually out of necessity.
Rapidly becoming a tourist destination in its own right, Thorold, Ontario, is redefining itself from the thriving industrial "big stack" city that grew up with the Welland Canal into a dynamic community celebrating that historic waterway. The Welland Canal, which first opened in 1829, incorporates 8 locks and 43.4 kilometers (27 miles) of canal in an engineered by-pass of Niagara Falls and the Niagara River that takes ships of all sizes from ocean-linked Lake Ontario up 99.5 meters (326.5 feet) to Lake Erie and the four western Great Lakes -- and right through Thorold. This city is also steeped in the history of the War of 1812.
"When I first took office, we were in a very different time," said Thorold Mayor Robin Brock, a lifelong resident, who took on the challenge of an economically-dying city. "Just a little under 6 years ago, we had just lost a few businesses. We had a paper mill close that employed 1000 and that supported downtown core amenities ... . Not only did industries close and put people out of work, but those were the high-paying jobs. This left acres vacant. Weeds grew up and vandals enjoyed the place to paint graffiti and hang out -- all in the downtown core."
At same time, the Keefer mansion, the home of Thorold's founding family, became vacant after years as a chronic care hospital and was suddenly considered more valuable torn down than as an historic connection. Without a heritage designation to protect it, this 1886 red-stone beauty was scheduled for demolition and council had no authority to deny the permit.
"We -- just a handful of council members -- did not try to find solutions," said Brock. "[Instead] we called for proposals and went out to the entire development community and asked them to be creative ... . It was a huge risk from a political perspective. We were not sure how we would work all this out."
Local initiatives driven by local businesses, community leaders and creative partnerships have revitalized this city of 18,000 and continue to transform its skyline:
- The Keefer Mansion was home to "Canada's most important engineering dynasty, planning and directing the building of our railways, bridges, the Welland Canal and our nations' new Parliament." The mansion, which is owned by the City of Thorold as the 10-suite Keefer Mansion Inn, has undergone a 3-year restoration to reflect the "privileged life" of its prosperous builders.
- Niagara College masonry students participated in Thorold's renewal to learn a new skill and gain experience, thereby enabling projects to completed on budget without sacrificing quality.
- Welland Mills, the only remaining original mill of the Maple Leaf Flour Mills Company, is now owned by Keefer Developments Ltd., and will house retail and residential apartments with eight town homes planned for the adjacent property.
- The paper mill Brownfield redevelopment is a 16 acre City-Core Revitalization with proposed uses that include a warehouse, retail and office space, a conference facility, parking and green space. (For more on Brownfield redevelopment, read PJ Wade's article "Kingston Brownfields Prime Development Sites ( Home Kitchen Sink Refrigerator Freezer Appliances Oven Stove Dishwasher Washer Dryer ).")
- The Welland Canal Parkway, the Twin Flight Locks and historical murals depicting Canal stories are now tourist destinations.
- And the smoke stacks recently came down on another huge industrial site to make way for more housing and commercial uses in this revitalized community.
"It could have gone the other way," said Brock. "We worked 70 and 80 hours a week for more than a year to see that everything went well. It's an ugly duckling transformed into a swan. People feel safer. It is a vibrant and health community and, quite frankly, it wasn't 6 or 7 years ago. This was a team effort. You must have faith in the community and not doubt the people you are working with."
To visionaries faced with difficult challenges in their communities, Mayor Brock sends words of encouragement: "You'll be surprised at what people will bring forward. If you are struggling with the negative -- the loss of jobs, loss of revenue -- go out to the people and ask what they want to see. Involve as many as possible -- and be ready to take a few risks!"