By Randy Busbridge
There is a special place in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
At the western edge of the Old Town lies a 270-acre property owned by Parks Canada. The site contains a magnificent Carolinian forest – one of the last on the shores of Lake Ontario. It contains beautiful creeks and estuaries. It includes an important War of 1812 battlefield: the site of the Battle of Fort George. It is the place that United Empire Loyalist John Secord, one of the first settlers of the area, called home. It is now the home of numerous birds, fish, amphibians and mammals.
Although it has been decades since a full and formal Species at Risk inventory has been conducted and published, we do know that it is home to the rare Red-Shouldered Hawk and at least one threatened plant species. Despite its ownership, historical importance and scientific significance, this property is not a park, and is not open to the public. Instead, the site has suffered through over a century of neglect and abuse.
Parts of the property have been variously used for a dump site, for sewage lagoons, and for an army rifle range and training site – showing a spectacular lack of appreciation for both our heritage and the environment. Despite this failure of stewardship, the property is serenely beautiful.
As anyone who has ignored the No Trespassing sign will attest – from dog walkers to senior citizens who grew up in the town – the property inspires feelings of reverence and awe.
This special place should be an eco-park – a natural heritage park that focuses on both our heritage and the environment.
The time has come to put right the mistakes of the past. The time has come to ensure this natural wonder and historical treasure is preserved for future generations. Such a park would protect the magnificent Carolinian forest and beautiful wetlands on the property. It would preserve habitats for a variety of wildlife. It could showcase our heritage, including the War of 1812, First Nations history, United Empire Loyalist settlement, and our agricultural heritage. It would provide a host of educational opportunities.
It affords us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to conserve and enhance a precious green space in this, one of the most de-forested parts of the province. An eco-park would be consistent with Parks Canada’s mandate to “preserve and present.” Nature and heritage are the top motivators for people to visit the Niagara region. Around the world, nature-based tourism is growing, and studies show these visitors stay longer, spend more money and visit twelve months a year. An eco-park would compliment existing area attractions, providing additional incentive for longer stays and return visits. That would help Niagara’s struggling retail and hospitality businesses.
Compare the idea of a natural heritage park with Project Niagara, a proposal from the National Arts Centre and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to develop a summer music festival on the property.
The proponents are asking the province and the federal government for over $30 million – each – to construct an amphitheatre and support buildings, concessions, and parking lots for 1,500 cars. They also need the region to move the town’s sewage lagoon. That cost, estimated at $49 million, would be shared by the regional, provincial and federal governments.
In return, Project Niagara is claiming the festival would create around 700 jobs. But this is a 17-week festival, so we are talking about mostly seasonal, part-time and low-income jobs. Indeed, the Project Niagara feasibility study only specifies 33 of the positions as permanent. This will hardly make up for our shuttered factories and empty hospital beds. The Project Niagara proposal comes at a time of record deficits, economic uncertainty, and ongoing concerns over our global competitiveness. It comes at a time when governments are warning us of looming cutbacks – cutbacks which can only mean more bad news for systemic, expensive issues like health care, education, decaying infrastructure and the environment.
A music festival will not guarantee prosperity. Just ask the people of Lenox, Massachusetts, home of the famous Tanglewood festival. At the moment, there are 19 empty stores in Lenox, with more closures expected.
An eco-park might not guarantee prosperity either, but it could help. It would tap into a new and growing tourism market. It would certainly cost a lot less than a music festival at a time when we’re all worried about ballooning government deficits and an uncertain economic future. It would be less invasive to residents. And it would not pose a threat to existing businesses by trying to squeeze 250,000 additional visitors into the 17 most congested weekends of the year.
A natural heritage park would preserve the property’s status as part Ontario’s Greenbelt, which contributes $2.6 billion to our economy. It could contribute in a small way to reforestation efforts in the face of Ontario’s need to plant one billion trees. A music festival would be an expensive gamble. An eco-park is the right thing to do. Visitors and residents alike are crying out for access to Niagara’s waterfronts. Our lakes, forests and wetlands are threatened.
We need to preserve them, enhance them and celebrate them, not turn them into theme parks with a bandshell.
What do you think? Would future generations thank us more for creating a music festival or a park?
(Randy Busbridge is a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident and member of the Harmony Residents Group, a non-profit citizens group lobbying for an eco-park on sprawling Parks Canada property along the shores of Lake Ontario in his town. You can learn more by visiting the group’s website at http://harmonyresidentsgroup.blogspot.com/ )
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