Kenora residents let their voices be heard with a rally at Central Park yesterday afternoon, ahead of a presentation of a 1,000 signature petition against the redevelopment of Central Park to city councillors on Tuesday.
City councillors voted unanimously in support of rezoning Central park from an open space to residential space in March. In February, Mayor Dan Reynard said Central 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.
The city plans to redevelop the western half of Central Park, but the Central Community Club area and the eastern ball diamond will remain public, along with new green spaces. Central’s newly rebuilt clubhouse and rink is expected to be operational by the 2021-2022 hockey season.
Work on the clubhouse area, which began in June, includes 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.
When the development of the rest of Central Park’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, resident Dawn Mitchell, who organized yesterday’s rally at Central, says she’ll be having another meeting with city planners on October 7 after presenting a 1,000 signature petition and deputation to councilors against the project at City Hall on September 21.
“The City has violated their own official plan,” said Mitchell, in an interview with Q104 yesterday afternoon. “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.”
In March, 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.
“We still don’t believe there was an adequate consultation with the public before this planning process went ahead,” stressed Mitchell. “We’d like to see more consultation with the community. We want to be part of the vision for what we see Central Park being. We don’t believe it should be sold to a private developer for apartments.”
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.
Yesterday, Director of Corporate Services for the City of Kenora, Heather Pihulak, confirmed that the City has not found a developer for the property at this point, and an Expression of Interest has not been issued to date.
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. As of today, the only work that has taken place is preparation work on the east side of the park, ahead of the community club’s construction.
The Central Community Club project is funded by an $813,000 investment from the provincial and federal governments, announced by Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford in March, along with $100,000 from the City of Kenora and $117,000 raised by volunteers with the Light Up Central Committee.
In May, city engineers found that the area’s underground infrastructure was in dire need of repair and couldn’t be moved elsewhere, costing the city an extra $400,000 roughly. It’s not known if the additional work will cause delays to the overall Central project.
The Central Community Rink building was closed and ultimately torn down in 2018 as it was considered beyond repair. It was between 70 and 80 years old at the time. 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.