Clock tower tourism office hits right note for...
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Jul 08, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Clock tower tourism office hits right note for Thorpe

St. Marys Journal Argus

Stew Slater

St. Marys Journal Argus

In Bern, Switzerland, the still-working Zytglogge tower clock stands, almost 800 years after its construction, as a testament to the will of a community to preserve its heritage.

“People who have travelled in Europe talk about how things like that are preserved for many centuries,” says St. Marys resident Jennifer Thorpe, who admits she has never travelled to Bern. “I know (the Andrews Building clock tower) isn’t even 150 years old yet, but why shouldn’t we think the same way here?”

Much as she loves the music of DeBussy, and classic films like The China Syndrome from which she frequently draws reference as she carries on a conversation, Thorpe — an award-winning jazz vocalist — is an unabashed lover of the Andrews Building. From the window of her music school/studio on Queen Street (a shared space with the Motus School of Dance), she can be inspired by the 1884 edifice, designed by well-known architect William Williams.

“It’s everything. It’s part of St. Marys,” she says of the building that, for almost the entirety of its lifetime, housed a jewellery store on the streetfront level and a working clock in its steep upper reaches.

Thorpe is launching a campaign to raise funds to purchase the building, on the same week that St. Marys Town Council got its first look at a request from its current owners, Lynn and Colleen Foley, to have an Ontario Heritage Act designation removed from the downstairs interior. With original glass display cases, wall-length mirrors and other irreplaceable features, the Andrews Building is the only one in St. Marys for which the interior — in keeping with a 2008 motion by Town Council — is protected.

Two levels up, the clock still works, although it needs regular oiling and three-times-per-week winding. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it almost certainly will need some fairly minor repairs to keep it in working condition, she says.

These are things Thorpe learned when, several years ago, she convinced the Foleys to let her and her husband sign a waiver in case they tumbled (she was pregnant at the time) down the clock tower’s vertigo-inducing staircase and learn how to wind it.

Now, Thorpe has something even more significant that she hopes to convince to the Foleys: She wants to lead the charge to buy the Andrews Building on behalf of the Town of St. Marys, and turn the lower level into a tourism office and possibly display area for touring museum shows or other attractions.

It's an idea that appeals to some members of Council — although they weren't necessarily aware of how far Thorpe has advanced as they considered the Foleys' request at a Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday, July 8.

"The only way (to protect the interior) is for the Heritage (Committee) to buy the building, or for the Town to buy the building," said Councillor Carey Pope at the meeting. "I would prefer that it is the Heritage group because I don't want to see the Town involved in that type of thing. But it has happened in other communities."

At the July 8 meeting, councillors were informed there's a 90-day period during which they must decide to approve or deny the Foleys' request — which was originally submitted to Town Hall on May 22. And that 90-day period began as soon as the Heritage Committee — in keeping with the Ontario Heritage Act — provided its comments about the request. The Heritage Committee did so on June 14.

The Committee's recommendation to Council is to not approve the request. But a report provided for the July 8 meeting included four conditions to consider if Council chooses to grant it. Those conditions include a right of first refusal on purchasing the downstairs interior furnishings and decor, if the building is sold.

A couple of councillors — Don Van Galen and Bill Osborne — suggested they're leaning towards accepting the request. The notion of an appeal by the Foleys to the Ontario Municipal Board was mentioned once at the meeting, but the main concern expressed by the two councillors is that protection of the interior has unduly limited the ability of the Andrews Building owners to attract businesses to rent the downstairs space.

Van Galen likened the beautiful Andrews Building interior to the philosophical argument known as "Schrödinger's cat." Like that cat — either dead or alive; no one really knows — inside a sealed box, "we have a building with great architectural and cultural value in its interior, but it can't be accessed because it is designed in such a way that it can only be used for one thing (a jewellery store). And I think the owners have come to that same conclusion."

Thorpe told the Journal Argus that the Foleys “fully support" her campaign. "But they told me, ‘don’t take too long’." She added the building’s owners confirmed to her that there has been interest expressed in the listed price, from other potential buyers.

“I don’t happen to have that kind of money in my back pocket,” she smiled.

Thorpe isn’t suggesting anyone else who purchases the building will necessarily do things to detract from its heritage value. Indeed, she praises the Foleys for, during their time as owners, maintaining the classic downstairs jewellery store interior and ensuring the exterior has been maintained and even improved.

But she believes that, with private ownership, the risk is just too high for a building she says has a value far beyond anything anyone might pay for it in monetary terms. Whether or not it’s protected in some way, either inside or out, by Heritage Act designation or other legislation, she remains concerned that the iconic building and its inner charms might someday fall into disrepair.

“What’s to stop (subsequent owners) from saying, ‘I need to do this or that to be able to run a business’? Or, if the business fails, and the new owner says they’re not going to sell it unless they can take out the (downstairs) display cabinets?” she asked.

Thorpe knows she’s not the first person to suggest the town purchase the building, nor the first to say it should be home to a tourism office. She was handed a three-page proposal identifying that exact idea brought to Town Council a few years ago by a local businessperson. And, more recently, Osborne mused aloud in the Council Chambers about a tourism office in the former jewellery store.

Rationale for pursuing such a plan, she says, is strong. She sees tourists all the time walking along Queen Street, looking up at the Town Hall and the Andrews Building clock tower. It would be great, she says, for them to be able to stop in somewhere convenient an find out more about the town.

The Town Hall and clock tower “look like they’re related. One should definitely be with the other,” she commented.

A downtown tourism office would be wonderful, she adds, during events such as the Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend and the upcoming Stonetown Heritage Festival.

And she stresses the lower-level interior should remain intact, with its classic glass display cases. They’d be ideal, Thorpe noted, in a tourism office environment.

But she says it’s all just talk until somebody takes some action. And, since she loves the building so much, she has decided to take action.

She recalls talking with Foley about her passion for keeping the clock in working order. “And when he started talking about the offers he had, I suddenly realized, ‘oh, my God. I haven’t been thinking big enough’.”

“I know I have the support of lots of individuals,” she said. “I’ve heard from so many of them.”

Building on that support, over the next little while, she plans on bringing a presentation to local businesses to see if she can get some more momentum.

“It’s kind of important to raise the money outside of the regular Town budgets,” she said.

“We’ve got bridges, we’ve got the wastewater treatment plant. Those are all really good things, and important.”

“But, at the same time, we don’t want to become a town with nothing at its centre.”

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