STEP up St. Thomas

(This blog was originally posted on September 5, 2012 at http://www.rowleywriter.blogspot.com)

STEP – St. Thomas Elevated Park

Well, that was interesting.  One thing that I admire about my brother-in-law, Damon, is his activity in his community.  He moved to Stanstead,Quebec a few years back and jumped into community development and the arts.  My wife and I just came back from our first open “Town Hall” meeting.  One thing I saw clearly before my eyes – you just can’t please everyone, but you can take the chance to rally the troops and engage people in honest debate and productive discussion.

St. Thomas, Ontario is purportedly the “Railway Capital” of Canada.  During the late 1800s and early 1900s as many as 140 trains rumbled down the iron tracks that weaved through the city.  The old railway station stood abandoned when we moved into town in 1999.  There was little to truly declare that the reputation of the railway capital was based on much more than lore.

Take a walk down the streets of St. Thomas and you will soon see that there is a very different feel and it makes many uncomfortable.  There is a higher than average population of our neighbours living with problems related to mental health struggles.  The regional mental health centre is situated on the outskirts of town along a road that once showed warning signs that read, “Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers.”  A new forensic psychiatric facility is being built as we speak.  There are a number of adult group homes supporting those with challenges.  Ontario Works (welfare) is situated on the main street.  Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is on the main street – at least until the province makes the final decision to close the office.  A satellite office of Family and Children’s Services is on the main street.  A methadone clinic is on the main street.

A number of companies have packed up shop and moved out of the city.  Factories have closed and moved out of the country.  Mom and Pop shops closed.  Schools have amalgamated leaving empty century-old structures that once stood proud.  The historic old jail was torn down.  The old Alma College burned to the ground at the hands of teenage arsonists.  Granted, some schools have been re-purposed and are once again in use.

The old Michigan Central Railroad Kettle Creek Bridge is no longer in service and was sold by the railway to a developer.  Many of the other rail lines have been removed from the city, but this 80-90 foot high, iconic structure remains a landmark in Ontario straddling the road betweenLondon and Port Stanley.  It was an engineering marvel in it’s day and truly is something to behold.

Tonight, community based program ‘On Track’ presented the concept of the St. Thomas Elevated Park (STEP).  If this idea moves ahead, it will take the title of first elevated park in Canada!  Similar elevated parks exist in New York andParis, but nothing in Canada.  Sure, there are bridges that are incorporated in various trails throughout the country, like the historic wooden Kinsol Trestle on Vancouver Island, but nothing like what was proposed.  A Canadian first…in St. Thomas!  It could be a reality.  As a public park, it would serve as a high profile addition to the Trans Canada Trail offering panoramic views of the Kettle Creek valley.

Elevated park in New York

The City has put forward an offer to the developer with the hopes that a community partner would come alongside them with the finances as St. Thomas wasn’t in the position to spend that sort of money.  On Track is seeking $250,000 to cover the purchase of the land, and to cover the associated costs such as a safety and security assessment and a land survey.

One outspoken community member spoke out tonight citing the numerous losses of the city and requested that the community embrace this possibility and to no longer sit idly by and allow opportunities to slip through their hands as many have in the past.  Others made brash comments about annual suicides occurring as people chose to end their life by jumping the 80-90 feet to their death.  The On Track committee assured the public that a safety assessment would be reflective of this reality.

Landowners complained that they weren’t made aware that the property backing their land was up for sale, but a 16- year-old stood up and said that if she was able to find this out then there wasn’t much of an excuse for others.

Concerns were raised about vandals having access to people’s properties.  I thought there was a valid point, but generally speaking, people who are hiking or exercising aren’t usually the destructive type.

Traffic flow and parking were concerns, but plans would have to be approved by the city with public input.

A loss of tranquility was raised.  There were once 140 trains a day rumbling by.

“There’s no where to go, nothing to do in this city.”  How about a one of kind park in Canada being located in St. Thomas?

The old station renovated on open for business, including MPP Jeff Yurek’s office.

Regardless of personal opinion, On Track has brought rail heritage back to St. Thomas.  Numerous murals appear throughout the city, Thomas the Train visits for two weekends each summer much to the delight of children and their parents, and they have seen to the restoration of the deteriorating railway station which now stands proudly as a beacon to railway enthusiasts – it also houses the office of MP Jeff Yuerk and a series of small commercial spaces.  Another railway park along a former rail corridor is underway.

It’s easy to view the city in a negative light and I have often been critical of the condition of St. Thomas.  But I am seeing small steps being taken by brave people to restore the city to it’s glory days, despite the problems that exist.  The city needs an economical boost.  The influx of dollars would be beneficial to business.  Tourism Elgin would have some new bragging rights, too.

Everyone has a story.  St. Thomas had a story that many have forgotten.  I hope that people who were unaware of this project would throw their support behind it and learn a bit more about the heritage of the city that they, that we, call home.

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