by Trish Dyer
Contrary to popular myth, the town of Carleton Place is not growing in leaps and bounds. In fact, planner Lisa Young says the community has enjoyed a moderate and ‘manageable’ growth rate of between one and two percent over the past decade.
Unprecedented increases in the cost of land and development fees combined with planning decisions made by the city of Ottawa have fuelled such development by leading smaller builders to look to communities such as Carleton Place, Young says, attracting, in turn, families and individuals seeking a more affordable and relaxed lifestyle.
Integrating residential and retail growth, ‘big box’ stores included, with what Young describes as ‘existing expectations’ of traditional small town life is Carleton Place’s foremost planning challenge.
In 2012, the town is rapidly approaching the ‘tipping point’ faced by many semi-rural communities across Canada: the series of choices which distinguish healthy, self-sufficient, vibrant towns from bedroom communities.
Mayor Wendy Leblanc, an attractive, forthright Carleton Place native, won election by a landslide in 2010 by building on her reputation as a progressive councillor with a clear, well articulated vision for the town’s future.
The Mississippi River, which winds through the heart of the town, is at the heart of Leblanc’s vision. Beyond its role as the historic nexus to original settlement, Leblanc sees the River as a defining modern day asset to be shared for what she calls ‘the common good.’ “The Mississippi River is the greatest single piece of infrastructure we have,” Leblanc says. “We are stewards of the river and it is only right that citizens have the right to enjoy it.
Leblanc, whose unwavering support for the creation of Roy Brown Park, a 35 acre strip of waterfront on the Mississippi River between the Carleton Place Canoe Club and Highway 7 against fierce opposition in 2004-2005, points to the re-location of the offices of the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority on 5 acres within the park- and the stewardship of the river the authority will provide – as evidence that there are more democratic and rewarding alternatives to the age old practice of selling off waterfront to high end developers.
Led by Leblanc, Carleton Place council has quietly been pursuing a policy of buying up downtown waterfront including small strips of land on the River on Mill Street – between the railway underpass and Princess Street- and the east side of Princess between the ‘back’ bridge leading to MacArthur Woolen Mill and the entrance to the Mississippi Riverwalk Trail (behind the arena).
The parcel of land (parking lot) purchased with the strip of shoreline abutting the railway underpass has been absorbed into the town’s municipal yard abutting it. The town has purchased land in the Industrial Avenue (the Brick) area off Townline Road and intends, ultimately, to consolidate its public works yards there. The property on Princess, which now occupies the block between Mill Street and Franklin between Princess and the abandoned railway track would be then be sold for development.
Continued access to the shoreline along the north side of the point on McArthur Island (facing the back of Bill Bagg’s antiques business) has also been assured through negotiations, mandated by provincial regulation, with the developers of a proposed condominium on the Island. (Should the condo proceed, the town intends to double the single lane bridge linking the Island to Princess Street.)
Further to the west, Leblanc hopes to extend the municipal riverfront park (fountain) beside Carleton Place Town Hall.
Negotiations are underway for an alternative location for the Youth at Risk Centre which operates, sporadically of late, in the former fire hall adjacent to the park. The building was originally leased from the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority for a fixed term, however that term has since expired. The Conservation Authority, which requires access to both the diversion dam and weir behind the building for maintenance purposes, plans to remove the building, leaving the site open between the town park and the building housing Slackoni’s Restaurant.
Combined with Hackberry Park, located to the west of the railway underpass, St. James Park on the north shore and a public boat launch off Bridge Street, council’s latest downtown waterfront acquisitions ensure guaranteed and rare public access to the River. Indeed, the circuit between Main Bridge and the back bridges, which takes in historic Boulton Brown Mill (once a grist or flour mill), McArthur Woolen Mill, the tannery building occupied by Leatherworks/Morphy Falls pub, and multiple historical residences in addition to spectacular, unobstructed views of the river, is by far the most popular of the town’s historical walks.During summer months, it is not unusual to see several dozen walkers in the space of an hour (often with historic walk guides in hand.)
Retaining and expanding traditional aspects of small town life, of course, requires a lively and diverse downtown retail sector. Young sees the addition of major chain retailers (Walmart, Home Depot, Rona, Canadian Tire) on and around McNeely Avenue as a means of ensuring consumer dollars stay in the community. However, she acknowledges their adverse impact on the downtown sector,
In the past year, council, led by Leblanc, has hired a Community Programmer, visibly and enthusiastically supported increasingly popular downtown initiatives such as (Wine’d Around Town, (July’s) Bridge Street Bazaar, Halloween’s Masquer’ade and Christmas Parade, established a strong, pro-active relationship with downtown merchants seeking to attract niche retailers and committed to hiring a qualified Economic Development Officer by the end of March 2012.
Bridge Street between Townline Road (Highway 15/29) and Main Bridge has been reconstructed, significantly improving one of the town’s main gateways. A prominent eyesore, and, it turns out, contaminated site, at the southern edge of the downtown area has been addressed by the demolition of a former Canadian Tire building and construction of an attractive, open air Market Square at the corner of Beckwith Street and Lake Avenue. The Square, which offers significant parking, will host the popular Saturday morning Farmer’s Market and accommodate other downtown initiatives on an as needs basis.
Beckwith Street, parallel to and one block east of Bridge has also been reconstructed. In addition to providing ‘back door’ parking for banks and restaurants fronting Bridge Street, Beckwith is also home to several small businesses including two hairdressers(north end) a high end dress shop, chiropractic clinic, law offices, a well established Chinese restaurant and the Carleton Place Public Library. The Carleton Place Cinema (housed in a former church) also corners Beckwith at Albert.
The single most prominent undeveloped site in downtown Carleton Place remains, of course, the ‘Findlay’ property. The site of historic Findlay’s Foundry (1860-1874), internationally renowned as an unparalleled manufacturer of high quality wood stoves (the Findlay Oval) and cookware, the parcel, to the northwest of Main Bridge, presents a challenge common to the leaders of small, underfunded municipalities throughout Ontario.
The practice of simply burying waste or by-products, tipping liquids, including toxic chemicals into the ground to be absorbed, and abandoning leaking underground tanks in favour of installing others has left small towns and villages across Canada with ‘brown fields’ areas of land which would require specialized and costly clean-up before being developed.Leblanc suspects that property, which is owned by an Ottawa resident, will not be developed for some time as a consequence. However, the former Black Sheep building on the east side of Main Bridge, has been purchased by an area resident who intends to install commercial offices on the ground floor and residential accommodation above.
The town itself hopes to sell a substantial building lot at the north end of Market Square to a developer interested in building on the same commercial/residential combination – one which Leblanc sees as an ideal two- pronged approach to rebuilding the town’s core.
“Small business is big business for us,” Leblanc says. “I truly believe that the key to the future of Carleton Place (and other small towns) is attracting small business and offering a unique and rich quality of life.”