BCK-fullAly-BoltmanBy Aly Boltman

For over a decade, I've watched that hulking mass of blight we Owen Sounders call BCK, rot away. As someone who loves our city, I've never been able to understand why it has sat there, woefully ignored and abandoned for so long. Yes, there are probably a dozen reasons why its owners haven't moved forward with a plan – mild contamination, lack of expansion in our population base, poor understanding of our community, the bleed of industry in our downtown core in favour of the faceless, sterile car-friendly development on the fringe, and so on. I've heard it all. But one thing is absolutely certain – the lack of growth on the site (excepting the weeds), be it a pop-up park or a full scale mixed-use development, really points to a fatal pairing that has allowed the blight to exist for far too long; lack of imagination and an apathetic city.

Before you go running to post a nasty comment, allow me the chance to explain.

First, if I lived right by BCK and had to look at that mess every day, I'm pretty sure that I'd be apoplectic, speechless with anger or utterly deflated by now. Both states are terrible, and wouldn't make for too many articulate or calm members of the community when push came to shove. This poses the risk that this frustration will rob us of amazing opportunities to dream big together, and advocate for change in a manner that doesn't push the city of Owen Sound or the developer away.

The city has undeniably (and selectively) looked the other way regarding property standards, and tried to play nice with a developer whom it hopes will do an about face one day and show some interest in investing in our community. The city is in a tough spot too – if staff and council discourage developers in a town with no expanding tax base, without sufficient reason to do so such as violations of provincial planning acts or the city's master plans, they may as well go find a shovel and dig their own graves.

I don't envy any of them.

BCKb-fullBut at the present time, I don't envy myself either. Or anyone else who lives in this city as we are all negatively affected by our lack of development and the rotting BCK site, which takes up an entire block of prime development land by the harbour.

Yet despite the negativity, there is a renewed spark of interest. Some of the neighbours have come out swinging again, possibly willing to trade hope for boxing gloves. But it is petitions and angry letters that often propel us towards change we desperately need. Others have come away from the recent Healthy Communities conference and other such events with fresh ideas to help invigorate our city, even in its darkest corners. Then there is the coming municipal election, and a growing number of people signing up for a chance to have some impact on our lives. Promises will be made, platforms will be built and the community will have the chance to makes its choices to either move forward or continue to stumble in the weeds (those awful weeds again.)

Despite our fiscal challenges, we have a lot going for ourselves. We are a city filled with artists, creative misfits, "from-aways," with ideas brought from larger centers that have had the luxury of experimentation and fuller coffers. We have knowledgeable born-and-bred Owen Sounders, who can comment on what's worked and what hasn't. We have an art gallery that supports boundary-pushing pop up art projects that could help us beautify our troubled spaces. We have a college that, if it chooses, could be a massive agent of change by investing in our core and our community, by building residences or classrooms (or marine training facilities) on this site; by trying to work with the developer to do something progressive.

We have Brownfield remediation incentives and a council that could choose to waive development charges to help bring momentum and hope. We have a newly revitalized community museum across the road. We have our beautiful, under-utilized harbor. We have condos being built, and new businesses starting up in town. We have a decent mixture of old money and new, and a lot of seniors looking to downsize but who want to stay downtown in a walkable core with transit options. We have funding opportunities such as the South Western Ontario Development Fund, REDD, Community Foundation Grey Bruce (had to put a plug in there), affordable housing funding, and other sources that our economic development department could isolate to help bring a big project like this to fruition. We have great community partners, awesomely hard-working social welfare groups and ideas with legs. So how can we harness all of this and get the ideas out on the table?

In less than 24 hours from the time I hurriedly write this column, one of the elusive owners of BCK is coming to town to meet with Miranda Miller, a member of the community who looks out her window every day upon the BCK site and who has simply had enough with the waiting, enough of the atrophy. She has started a petition to get council to take the site's deplorable state seriously, to help bring a tiny piece of peace to the community, if nothing else. While I believe that the petition is useful (especially in an election year), what I really think we need now is optimism, and an opportunity to show the BCK owners that something magical can happen when people are willing to work together for change. Case in point, the Chatsworth Bridge, or the city bandstand, or the rebirth of The Roxy, or any number of other positive projects we've seen in our community.

This is our chance to come armed with knowledge and willpower, hope and common sense. This is our window to allow a stranger to peek inside our community, and see that the grass really is greener around here when we have a little water with which to work. This is the opportunity we've all been waiting for to make some change, to be the change. Miranda and the mayor have a lot on their shoulders and I hope for all of our sakes they can take whatever differences they may have, and put them aside, to help make some local history, in a place that once teemed with industry and creativity, and could again.

Let's get off our apathy train and depart the pity party to get the job done – the opportunity is here and now. Let's not waste it.


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