By Stew Slater, Staff reporter
On Monday, Sept. 17 at the Town Hall, a meeting will be held to explain the Town’s updated proposal for a Heritage Conservation District (HCD) in downtown St. Marys. And Councillor Don Van Galen has already wondered aloud whether or not animosity and accusations can be avoided at the meeting.
At a regular meeting of Town Council’s Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, Sept. 4, Van Galen commented that sessions about the concept “haven’t always been the most sedate of affairs.” As further evidence, he cited a recent meeting organized by a downtown businessperson, at which Van Galen suggested “facts were thrown around quite loosely, from both directions, (and) I felt compelled to correct some of the misconceptions.”
The businessperson in question, however, believes the meeting — held at the Black Angus restaurant on Thursday, Aug. 30 — was very valuable as a means of preparing for the Sept. 17 Town-organized public meeting.
“It was meant to be an information night, and I organized it because a lot of us business and property owners in the downtown are trying to get our minds around how this is going to affect us — from insurance, to business taxes, to revenue potential,” explained McPhails Pet and Animal Needs owner Bill McPhail.
The Queen Street businessperson stressed the Aug. 30 meeting was not organized by the Business Improvement Area or the Downtown Merchants Association — both of which receive some support from the Town. Instead, he says, it was a personal effort on his own behalf to encourage people to prepare themselves with information in advance of the Town-sponsored public meeting.
Invited guests who made presentations included a commercial property realtor, a commercial insurance agent, and St. Marys Museum Curator Trisha McKibbon.
McKibbon was Town of St. Marys administration’s point person on the most recent effort to bring forward an HCD proposal — undertaken with the assistance of a consulting agency after an earlier attempt was derailed by the combination of a botched boundary delineation and an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board.
At the Committee of the Whole meeting, Van Galen praised McKibbon for her presentation at the Aug. 30 get-together. But he followed up by raising concerns about keeping things civil at next Monday’s Town Hall public meeting.
“There will be a protocol in place,” responded McKibbon. She added a short presentation will kick off the Sept. 17 meeting, which starts at 7 p.m., and this will be followed by a question-and-answer period arranged in such as way as to allow optimum participation by all who want to have input.
There will be no Council vote at the Sept. 17 meeting; it is purely to provide information to the public, and collect public comments.
McPhail suggests a lot of business and property owners didn’t pay close enough attention the first time the HCD was introduced by the Town. But the August, 2011 tornado that nearly obliterated downtown Goderich served as a rude awakening about the possible effects of having an HCD in place.
“We realized that something like (the tornado) really could happen here,” he said. “And how does (the HCD) affect the efforts to rebuild?”
Stressing it’s only a personal opinion, he argues there are a number of properties outside the proposed HCD boundaries that have equal or even greater heritage value to the Town of St. Marys, compared to some downtown buildings. And he adds business and property owners should always work to ensure they retain some level of influence over what’s done to their buildings.
Those are some of the things McPhail will be watching for at next week’s meeting. And, whether they agree or disagree, he encourages others to think about the issues that cause them concern, and bring them forward as well.