It’s been a tough year for residents awaiting the construction of Kenora’s new Central Community Club and the redevelopment of the Central Park area, as the divisive project faced some major setbacks in 2021.
The original Central Community Club was closed and torn down in 2018 as it was beyond repair. Since then, volunteers with the Light Up Central campaign had been working to raise $170,000 to rebuild the building.
The project and Central Park stayed stagnant until February of 2021, when Mayor Dan Reynard said the Central Park area could be a ‘perfect’ location for multi-residential housing units, noting its close proximity to the downtown core and the rising demand for housing across the community.
“It’s perfect in terms of infrastructure. There are paved roads, sidewalks, sewer, water, hydro, natural gas. Everything’s there and it’s close to the downtown core. We’ll see how that plays out,” said Reynard.
Just one month later, councillors unanimously voted in favour of rezoning Central Park from an open space to a residential space. The city said the western half of Central Park would be developed, but the Central Community Club area and the eastern ball diamond would remain, along with green spaces.
Later in March, the Ontario and federal governments had come to the table with a funding announcement to help the City and the Light Up Central committee meet their fundraising goals, for a total of $813,000 of work. The City has committed $100,000, while Light Up Central raised $117,000.
"This park has been the topic of conversation for a while and we're pleased to be part of a rejuvenation of the club and this green space and make it a better place for kids and families to enjoy for an all-season experience," said MPP Greg Rickford.
Upgrades to Central are set to include a new outdoor rink, a new open rink area, replacement of the boards surrounding the hockey rink, paving and lining the ice surface, construction of a player bench area, and a new Central Community Club.
When the development’s complete, the city says residents will also be able to enjoy the new rink surface’s concrete base to allow hockey and basketball over the summer, beach volleyball areas, a second ice surface and a bocce ball area.
However, the project saw its first setback in May, when city engineers discovered that the area’s underground infrastructure was in dire need of repair and couldn’t be relocated, costing the city an extra $400,000 or so. Work to fix those issues took place until September. Work in the area finally began in June.
But in September, residents let their voices be heard at a Central Park rally, which included the presentation of a 1,000 signature petition against the park’s redevelopment.
“The City has violated their own official plan,” said organizer Dawn Mitchell. “We believe that Central Park is a public park and a public space that was gifted to the City over 100 years ago by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Parks are public assets that shouldn’t be sold.”
When the project was initially announced, the City of Kenora, Lake of the Woods Museum and Heritage Kenora disputed the claim that the Hudson’s Bay Company specified the property must be used as a park, saying the company’s plans from the 1880s showed Central Park was to be used as a residential area, before it was turned into a park in the 1890s.
Ultimately, Mitchell says while she agrees the Kenora community is in immediate need of new housing developments, they shouldn’t come at the expense of Central Park.
“We just want to make sure that we can meet the housing needs of this town, and we can do that by also preserving a green space that we have a lot of history with and enjoyed for the past 100 years. We want to keep it there for another 100 years,” said Mitchell.
When the provincial and federal funding was announced in March, the goal for the project was to have the new Central Community Club and an outdoor rink ready by the 2021-2022 winter season.
But by the middle of November, the city announced that construction had been delayed until the Spring of 2022. They said crews experienced delays due to unexpected soil conditions, a revision of the clubhouse’s final designs, and incorrect construction pricing estimates.
Still, the city says they are continuing to work with the general contractor and architects, designs have now been finalized for the new clubhouse and final engineering specifications are taking place for the new outdoor rink.
The City’s Senior Leadership Team has previously said they’ll work closely with a future developer to ensure their work is well-suited to the needs of the community and the neighbourhood.
Central is the home of Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Neil Strain of Kenora, who played for the New York Rangers in the NHL's Original Six.