A bright future for downtown Almonte

by Councillor John Edwards

The economic and cultural prospects for Almonte and Mississippi Mills are exceedingly bright.  Successive councils have set the vision of Mississippi Mills as one welcoming growth and development within a context of a physical environment and cultural/heritage character which ought to be preserved and, dare I say, enhanced for future generations.   The Municipality has made enormous investments in this vision of its future with the two major projects being the five million dollars invested in the old Almonte Town Hall and the twenty-five million dollars invested in the Almonte Waste Water Treatment Plant.

Mississippi Mills finds itself within the commuter-shed of the national capital.  Like it or not, this proximity is its key development advantage.  While growth in the business sector is greatly desired, residential growth is driving development in Mississippi Mills.  Indirectly, this has had and will continue to have a very positive impact on local businesses.  Consequently, the municipal focus upon Quality of Life investments such as, improved parks, Riverwalk, trails and active transportation provide exciting opportunities to make the Municipality  an even more desirable place to live. As the population grows, business opportunities grow with it.

As this growth continues apace, any Council worth its salt would want to preserve and enhance the very characteristics which make the community special.  Ever since Mississippi Mills was founded on January 1st, 1998, the Municipality through various and numerous public consultations always emphasized the community’s heritage and its physical environment as keystones to be preserved as growth was embraced.  The possibility of planning a Heritage Conservation District with its well-known record of no negative economic consequences was an obvious choice.  Equally, wise public investment seeks to compliment private sector investments such that the energy of both sectors combine to create community and economic benefits.

The past ten to fifteen years has clearly shown a revived downtown Almonte through private investments.  The resuscitated core is fundamentally based upon the heritage character of the area and its relationship to the Mississippi River.   These obvious new downtown investments have had a positive impact upon all the properties in the Downtown area.   It is also based upon a group of dynamic retailers and restauranteurs who use the historic buildings as a backdrop for their vision of unique small-town businesses.   They very wisely know they cannot compete head-on with outlet malls.  They use personal service, unique products and a focus upon creativity and authenticity  to build attractiveness.    There is an exciting present and future for Downtown Almonte and the Municipal government wants to aid and abet the development of the core.

The passing of the Almonte Downtown Heritage Conservation District at the end of June is a watershed moment in the cultural and economic development of Almonte and Mississippi Mills.   The Downtown of Almonte has long been viewed as a key to the economic development of the entire community.   The HCD is the joining together of public incentives with private investment.  Rare indeed are the opportunities presented to us to combine heritage cultural improvements with private financial investment.

Much has changed in the past fifteen years.  Almonte has become one of the most attractive small-towns in Ontario.  This has both a positive economic benefit for the community and benefits for all who live here. As a community, we are thankful for the private investment in the Downtown core.   Certainly, to many people, change comes too quickly.    The heavy municipal investment in development with its resulting increase in taxes and water rates is a case in point, but who would turn back the clock to sewage lagoons, a crumbling Old Town Hall  and no Riverwalk?  Equally, going forward into the future necessitates preserving and enhancing the best of the past and thus the importance of heritage preservation.  The HCD has created criticism amongst some although no one ever indicated the heritage architecture of the community was not important. Council treated all the points with great respect and made changes, except for one criticism; “We do not need it!”.

Ironically, this was the same plea of all those who were against the Enerdu power project; “We do not need it!”.  Are these the “Two Solitudes”?  Those who promote an unfettered  private sector and those who seek mounting restrictions on the same?   The truth of the matter is, we need both.  We need to have development which showcases local industry (Canadian Hydro Components will make the Enerdu turbines) generating green energy AND we need to respect the role of private investment AND we need to respect the heritage of the community.  These are not exclusive matters which are decided in isolation from one another.   After extensive discussions and sometimes difficult debates, Council has struck a politically mature balance in all these issues.  Council has formally participated in the design of the new Enerdu generating station, it has modified the HCD guidelines to make them less onerous and it has put in place financial incentives for HCD properties.  Not bad for a wide-spread provincial programme which has no negative economic consequences.  Change is always with us but looking backwards to the Lanark Landowners’ fictional private property ‘nirvana’ is not a serious option. We all need to give new ideas a chance before we become unresponsive to collaborative solutions.”