Tale of Two Communities – Part 2

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by admin on May 19, 2010

By Peter MacGibbon

In my first piece last week, I contrasted the challenges of geography posed to Chelsea and Wakefield, Quebec for their respective Community Centre development projects. Here I will compare the vision and process each community followed.

The socio-geographic factors mentioned previously have played a role in attracting different sorts of newcomers over the last several decades. In general, Chelsea has tended to appeal more to outdoorsy jocks, while Wakefield has become something of an artists’ colony.

This demographic distinction has influenced the design of their community centres. Chelsea’s centrepiece is to be an indoor hockey arena, along with a multi-purpose “space” for ad hoc events and services. The problem is, hockey arenas are expensive to build and maintain, and thus rely for revenues on outside visitors arriving for a single-stop purpose (to play hockey, then leave). Wakefield’s centre will host the village library, youth centre, recreation centre, and a performing arts theatre that has the potential to generate not only local and outside revenue, but to support the village’s surrounding restaurants, cafes, and shops.

Wakefield is a real village where people rally to volunteer-driven projects such as the grass-roots community centre campaign itself, which obtained well over the number of its actual population in paid memberships a full four years before the centre’s plan was recognized for external funding.

Chelsea, lacking any naturally unifying location, is in limbo between its not-so-distant rural community past and the suburbanizing influence of local politicians and developers keen on taking advantage of one of the highest per-capita income municipalities in Canada. Indeed, substantial tax hikes in Chelsea in the last few years have added to the perception of the municipal council as opportunists who are pushing through their community centre plan along with a host of other fiscally and environmentally controversial projects.

The Wakefield centre committee first formed a volunteer cooperative, and invited the entire community to be members. It has consulted, wrangled, cooperated, and compromised in full public view, and with minimal political support.

Chelsea formed a foundation and paid its inner circle to develop a plan. Its one significant attempt to consult with the community via town-hall meetings and surveys was dismissed as being “unrepresentative” when results showed that many residents were unhappy with both the vision and the process.

It’s therefore been hard for many of Chelsea’s residents not to perceive its centre project as a giant daycare for the children of latter-day yuppies and soccer moms sick of returning back to the city yet again, kids-in-tow, after returning home from work. (While less driving is good for any of us, the Chelsea centre’s business case still rests on drawing more traffic out from the city to use the arena.) These perceptions have only been aggravated by the recent election which saw a Chelsea Foundation member elected mayor by the slimmest of margins amid heavy-handed threats to sue opponents and the local press for defamation.

In my third and final reflection on this topic, I’ll look at some of the lessons learned from these dual processes in an attempt to describe why Chelsea could not pull itself away from an as-yet-unresolved disaster in community development politics.

Peter MacGibbon lives in Chelsea and is a project director at 3ci – Carleton Centre for Community Innovation. This is the second in a three-part series, which originally appeared at www.therurbanfringe.com. He is also a board member of Theatre Wakefield.