Collingwood council is taking the opposition to the proposed downtown archway as a sign to go back to the drawing board.
During an April 4 strategic initiative committee meeting, council members voted to postpone approvals for the BIA’s proposed gateway arch at First and Hurontario Streets and instead schedule a visioning exercise for 2023 or later.
Councillors also voted in favour of giving the BIA $32,403 to reimburse them for the money they spent to get the arch project to this point.
The archway saga isn’t over yet, council will have to vote one more time on all the April 4 committee decisions, and the town’s deputy mayor vowed to resurrect the issue at the first opportunity.
Collingwood Downtown BIA’s general manager Susan Nicholson came to council at the beginning of March 2022 with an update on the archway sign project, indicating it could be standing over the main street as early as the summer.
The project is a BIA initiative, covered in the BIA budget, which is funded through a levy attached to the property tax bill for downtown commercial buildings. The actual cost of the sign, $140,000 plus another $140,000 for a gateway feature (not necessarily an archway) at the south end of the downtown near Fourth and Hurontario Streets, can be covered by a federal/provincial grant the BIA secured for tourism initiatives aimed at helping local businesses recover.
Soon after Nicholson’s update, comments, emails, and letters flooded into town hall, council and local media opposing the archway, and expressing particular disdain for the design – a black metal arch with white font reading “Historic Downtown Collingwood” on one side, and “Historic Harbourfront Collingwood” on the other.
Among the comments were accusations the project was heading to approval without public consultation.
Qualifying the public response as “exceptional” and noting no obvious public consultation in the archway proposal process, council asked for a staff report on the matter.
The report came back on April 4 from Clerk Sara Almas, followed by a deputation by Nicholson.
“We’ve gone so far down the road, and it’s a long process to suddenly have the public say we don’t want it at all,” said Nicholson. “We know it’s been identified as a key component of wayfinding.”
She was referring to a wayfinding signage report commissioned by the town and BIA in 2017 that concluded the downtown was not easy to find and a gateway feature might help with that.
Nicholson explained project has been part of BIA discussions since 2016 with a rendering of the arch “in the public eye” since 2019. The BIA got approval for the archway from the Heritage Committee. Minutes from both the heritage and the BIA board meetings are sent to council for approval.
“The time to stop it would have been when we first brought it,” said Nicholson.
She did mention it in her budget presentation to council in May 2021, which resulted in a transfer of about $25,000 from the BIA reserve to be used for the design work and engineering drawings for the arch.
She explained the design components were carefully chosen through six revisions. The brick bases are meant to match downtown facades, the font is the same as the one used on the Discover Collingwood signage, and the posts are meant to match the light standards.
Coun. Yvonne Hamlin said the archway may not be a big-spending project, but the profile is very public and permanent, and that makes it, in her mind, a major project requiring more transparency and accountability.
Coun. Deb Doherty said she was sympathetic to the frustration the BIA board must be facing, but the public was too loud to ignore.
“It is relatively rare, in my experience, where we would get such a resounding, mostly negative reaction to a proposal for the downtown,” she said.
Coun. Kathy Jeffery acknowledged the BIA may have consulted stakeholders such as its membership, the design committee, the museum, and the heritage committee, but said it left the people who own the downtown.
“I think we need to take one of those pauses we’ve been taking over this term to respect transparency … a pause to give residents time to have some feedback and clarity,” said Jeffery. “I just don’t think I can get a proper handle on it without another step.”
Coun. Chris Carrier concurred, reiterating the owners of the downtown – the people of Collingwood – weren’t consulted.
“It’s a situation where a step in this process has been missed,” he said. “The town owns the downtown, the people own the downtown and we are the people’s representatives. I’m certainly voicing my support for them in a stronger balance than I am for the BIA tonight.”
Coun. Mariane McLeod said Nicholson’s use of “exploring” an archway installation during the May 2021 BIA budget presentation didn’t make it clear that the project would come to fruition in the summer.
“I’m so sorry we got to a point where so many people’s hair is on fire,” she said, suggesting there be public consultation quickly so council could make a decision in enough time for the BIA to use the grant money should the archway end up with council approval.
The grant funding from a joint provincial/federal program was given to the BIA with the archway initiative in mind, and projects covered with the grant money have to be completed by March 2023. It’s unclear if the BIA would lose the grant money entirely without approval for the archway.
Mayor Brian Saunderson apologized to the BIA and said the overarching blame for the situation rests at town hall because council didn’t call for public involvement sooner. Still, he didn’t want to bypass public consultation on the matter, no matter where the blame landed.
“I stand behind the public process,” said Saunderson. “If there are financial losses to the BIA, the town should be recouping those losses since it is council putting a stop to this process right now.”
The committee did support a motion to give the BIA $32,403 to cover the money the organization spent on the project thus far. The money will be drawn from the corporate contingency fund approved in the 2022 budget. Coun. Steve Berman was opposed on this matter.
Deputy Mayor Keith Hull was the only member of the committee in favour of approving the archway proposal as it was presented.
“There was consultation,” said Hull, referring to the BIA meetings between the heritage committee, museum members, and BIA membership, all of whom are also technically members of the public.
“This is an overall enhancement, not a detraction,” said Hull, who is also the council representative on the BIA board of directors.
Among the many votes taken on the matter was one motion calling for a survey of town residents asking them to pick a preferred design (black, burgundy, blue, or grey) or to indicate they don’t want any arch. The motion was defeated with four against (including Hull) and four in favour. Coun. Bob Madigan excused himself from the discussion and vote for a conflict of interest.
Following the vote in favour of postponing the archway project while the town works on a downtown visioning exercise in 2023 or later, the deputy mayor said he’d raise the issue again at the next council meeting to ask council to reconsider.
Hull reflected on the tie vote, estimating if he had “swallowed his pride” the archway project could still potentially be built in the summer.
“We were in a position to move forward or stay back, and we’re now taking multiple steps back and forking over $32,403 in taxpayer money to the BIA,” said Hull. “I’m pretty damn angry.”
The archway returns to the council agenda on April 19 for another vote.