Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Tragic Tale of Welland foretells the Future of Peterborough

This past Hallowe’en, PCVS students disguised as ghosts sent the message that downtown Peterborough would become a ghost town were the school to be closed, leaving no schools at all anywhere near the city’s center.

Downtown retailers have been supporting PCVS since the accommodation review last spring, many arguing that student business is integral to their operations. But the loss of direct sales would be merely the tip of the iceberg.

Once the school is gone, what reason will there be for anyone with children, or expecting to have children, to buy a house in the area – or even rent an apartment? When demand for housing drops, land-values will drop, and so will home-ownership rates. The only people who will choose to live in central Peterborough will be those just looking for the cheapest possible rental. The downward spiral will be well underway.

Let’s take a look at our potential future as revealed by another small Ontario city that sits at the intersection of a canal system and railway lines, a city whose manufacturing industry has been in decline, a city which once had a beautiful, well-loved public high school right downtown.

Sound like Peterborough? We’re talking about Welland, Ontario. Once a lively, tight-knit community, Welland has for years now been widely known as a place to avoid – particularly its depressing city center.

What went wrong? A series of well-intentioned decisions by various levels of government backfired, culminating in the closing of the historic Welland High School in 1989 – the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Back in Canada’s centennial year, everything was coming up roses for Welland. The city’s population had steadily increased for two decades as industry boomed, and by 1967 had exceeded 40,000. The city had grown up on both sides of the Welland Canal connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario – an important shipping route allowing water transport to bypass the Niagara River and its falls. The city’s downtown core sat at the confluence of a natural waterway, the Welland River, and the canal.

The Welland Canal is busy and commercial, in contrast to the summer-leisure use of the Trent-Severn, however, and the constant ship traffic through the center of the city was causing headaches for residents. Lift-bridges would often be up for ten minutes at a time to allow large ships to pass through. Local officials and canal authorities were in favour of digging a new stretch of canal on the eastern edge of the city, creating a more direct north-south route between Port Colborne on Lake Erie and Port Robinson just north of Welland. With the blessing of the city, the Welland By-Pass project got underway.

At a cost of $188 million, a new canal was dug, and at a cost of $50 million more, railway lines were re-routed. By 1973, the new system was in motion. The new canal went right past Eastdale Secondary School, a public high school built in 1961 on the eastern fringe of the city to accommodate the growing population, which had outstripped the capacity of the city’s original downtown school, Welland High.

Also in 1967, the school board constructed a third public high school, naming it Welland Centennial, this time on the west side, about 3 km northwest of the city’s core.

Just as the new canal opened, the North American economy changed. Welland’s manufacturing industries began to decline. Far from making the city center a nicer place to be, as city authorities had hoped, the re-routing of the canal and rail traffic had the effect of making the downtown irrelevant. Compounding the problem, in 1975, the Seaway Mall was built at the city’s suburban north end, luring retail trade away from the city’s center as well.

Throughout all these changes, Welland High, situated on the peninsula between the Welland River and the old canal route, remained a fixture in the city’s core. The school celebrated its own centennial in 1979.

Welland High - the city's former anchor
Former vice-principal Lou Bowman reflected on the school’s unique “ambiance” in this interview with the Welland Tribune two years back. Bowman called it “one of the classical buildings in Ontario,” and an “anchor” for Welland. He recalled that many students were the second or third-generations of their families to attend, and showed “a lot of respect” for the school. Like PCVS, Welland High was known for its drama club, rowing club, and exceptionally dedicated teaching staff.

Welland’s population held steady through the 70s and 80s, but school enrolment naturally declined across the city as the baby boomers aged. Barely more than twenty years after having built Centennial, the school board decided in 1989 that Welland didn’t need three public secondary schools. With the west and east sides of the city served by newer schools, school board trustees  made the decision that virtually everyone in the community would regret forever.

They pulled the plug on Welland High.

Bowman, who had since transferred to another school, publicly defended Welland High against the school board decision. “I love that school as much as you could love anything,” said Bowman. Teachers and students felt the same. When Welland High students staged a walkout to protest the impending closure, former student and teacher Tracy (Clark) Lessard cheered them on. “As teachers we couldn’t participate,” said Clark to the Tribune last fall, but were “proud of the students protesting.”

While students living in the city’s core were getting bused out to the margins to attend school, the school board proceeded to use the Welland High building for adult education through the 1990s – just as KPR administrators say they plan to do with PCVS. This lasted less than ten years. Then municipal officials and the school board began looking for private developers to take over the site and convert it into something else.

But now they ran into a “Catch-22” resulting from their own poor decisions. The very absence of the downtown high school had created a vacuum in demand for residential and commercial space in the area. Thirteen years went by, and despite public and private efforts, no redevelopment scheme ever got off the ground. The school building remained boarded up and decaying until last June. 

Second-generation Welland High graduate Doug Draper recalls a heartbreaking tour through the empty, tarnished halls three years ago, from which he found that lights, clocks and other fixtures had all been stolen. “Trash was strewn across the floor and there were empty beer cans piled in corners where vandals had broke in at night for a party,” wrote Draper on the Niagara-at-Large independent news site. “There were even Nazi swastikas spray painted on walls where plaques remembering students who sacrificed their lives in World Wars One and Two once hung.”

Last June, just as KPR administrators were wrapping up their abuse of the accommodation review process and readying to foist their destructive decision to close PCVS on the Peterborough public, vandals in Welland started a fire in the decrepit remains of what had once been a beacon of education in the Niagara region.

The blaze was tremendous, requiring every fire-fighter in the region to handle it. You can watch the building burn on this YouTube clip if you go for that sort of thing. Or watch the demolition of the still-smoldering embers here. Or, if you prefer still photos, there are several hundred here.

Both Draper and View magazine compared the conflagration to a “Viking funeral.” View called it “an ignoble, but sadly predictable end to the storied history of the former high school.”  Former principal Bob Muir called it “a tragic ending.” 

Last fall, Welland High alumni gathered for their sad class reunions, reduced to sharing memories and photos from yearbooks. They can buy a brick salvaged from the building’s remnants as a souvenir if they want.

Ever since the closure of Welland High, what has been the primary political issue occupying municipal leaders year in, year out?

You guessed it – the revitalization of the empty downtown core. Massive amounts of public money have been put into a decade-long project of creating a “civic square” near city hall. The new official plan calls for increasing residential density downtown. Yet the center of Welland continues to be dominated by vacant storefronts and seniors’ high-rises. How are they going to increase residential density if there are no schools to attract potential homeowners?

Welland’s present could easily be Peterborough’s future if KPR administrators have their way, and MPP Jeff Leal and Mayor Darryl Bennett continue to do nothing to stop them.

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't really make sense to remove the most youthful element in a downtown area only to tout the concept of a core's revitalization later on, does it?