Who owns Heritage?

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There’s been some hard thinking done recently on the subject of heritage. This week, we have learned about the draft agreement between Ontario and North Grenville concerning the future of Kemptville College. The statement released by the two governments can be read in this issue of the Times. The College has been part of the community for almost a century, and is most certainly a part of our heritage, so it was important that we maintained some control over what happens to the land and the buildings. The Statement does not, by any means, answer all the questions we may have about the plans for the College that have been agreed upon, but there is, at least, a sense that things are moving forward. Though, as the story by Deron Johnston points out, there are some troubling parts of the Statement that will be watched with concern until all the details of the deal are revealed.

Another recent controversy over heritage came with the decision by Council to approve a resolution which effectively means that Leslie Hall will be demolished. This is another century-old part of our heritage that will be sorely missed by the community. In fact, even now, the loss of a practical, efficient and conveniently-sited meeting hall is making itself felt. There is simply nowhere else in Kemptville that can adequately replace Leslie Hall.

But the controversy involved serious issues that are not easy to decide. The Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee did their job in bringing forward resolutions in an attempt to save this piece of our heritage. Those who voted against the resolutions, thereby condemning the Hall to destruction, did so, primarily, because the owners, the people of St. James’ Anglican Church responsible for the Hall, did not want it designated as a heritage structure because they simply could not afford the huge sum of money that would be needed to renovate the Hall and make it safe and useable again.

So, who owns heritage: the owners of a building, or the community? Who gets to decide which parts of our built heritage are protected, and which are left to be demolished? This is not an easy question, and perhaps there is no single answer. Every case needs to be addressed individually, taking into account the rights of the property owners, the rights of the community, and the state of the building in question. Where the municipality is the owner, as it was with Acton’s Corners School, there is a responsibility, I believe, to act on the wishes and consent of the community, and not to make a quick cash grab by disposing of the asset for a low gain.

The article in the Merrickville-Wolford section on the Carriage Factory in Eastons Corners is another example. It is up for a tax sale, unless the taxes are paid by the end of this month. But, rather than gain around $15,000 for the municipal coffers, wouldn’t it be better for the Municipality to take over the property as part of a heritage development project for Eastons Corners as a whole?

The Village of Merrickville has gained a great deal from its heritage character, and is a living proof of the potential for heritage tourism which exists in our region. We live on a World Heritage site, and, to date, nothing has been done in North Grenville to take advantage of that fact. New tourist facilities are coming in next year with the start of the Le Boat operations, and that indicates quite clearly that a European company sees the value of investing in this region as a draw for international tourist traffic. Where is our vision?

North Grenville has lost too much of its built heritage already. Not everything can be saved, but what can be, should be. Individual property owners may have rights, and those rights should be respected. But the community as a whole also has a right to preserve and protect our shared heritage. If that means compensating owners, then let’s at least look into devising a plan for the future use and preservation of our heritage. This is not a sop to elites, nor is it a waste of taxpayers’ money. The new Official Plan should take seriously the economic potential of heritage, instead of seeing “old buildings” as a drain on our taxes.

I know the municipality and some members of Council feel somewhat burned by reaction to the Acton’s Corners debacle. And so they should. But a realistic, practical and comprehensive heritage policy for North Grenville (and Merrickville-Wolford), based on active and serious participation by heritage groups, will make it a great deal easier for everyone to make good decisions in future. And good decisions on heritage matters would be a really welcome change of approach.

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