Nothing fires up debate in our fair town of Collingwood better than a plan to tear down a heritage building. Every time the issue arises, entrenched camps form with flaring tempers, passionate appeals and political hand wringing. There have often been lines drawn in the sand: tear it down or, fix it and leave it. Neither seems right to me.
In the last few years, the issue has come up over and over again as the town struggles with the impact of enormous growth pressures. Many of the properties are public assets such as old schools and the question of maintenance, restoration falls to municipal shoulders.
Some people look at an old building and see an unsafe, derelict and ugly structure that is better torn down and replaced by something more modern and functional. Others see a piece of our cultural heritage that tells the story of our people and our town. Both sides can agree that when it's gone, it's gone forever.
One such property under threat at present is the old Connaught school on Napier Street which is also known as the Contact Centre or Collingwood Fitness Centre. This town owned structure is one of the last turn-of-the-century institutional buildings left and it features architecture that is never duplicated today. But it's more than that. If the walls could talk, it would peal with the laughter of children who arrived by horse and buggy rather than by bus. It would speak of foreboding teachers who comforted and protected children during two world wars and the great depression.
As a town owned fitness centre, this building has deteriorated due to a lack of maintenance and likely from the effects of humidity related to the indoor therapeutic pool. It has not been remotely self-sufficient and is heavily subsidized by tax dollars for the relatively few people who make use of the facility. On the other hand, it is an important public asset and there is a plan under foot to replace it with a more modern facility in a different location. Bu then what happens to the building?
The Collingwood heritage committee is looking at developing a statement of cultural heritage value for the property; potentially a first step in having it designated as a heritage site. I can see the battle lines being drawn already.
I am firmly on the side of protecting our heritage assets and believe that there are ways to satisfy all parties. Creative adaptive re-uses can be found for our heritage buildings that preserve and renew the structures at the same time giving them new life and new use. Let's hope everyone is starting to think about options for this building; not drawing firm lines in the sand.