Tale of Two Communities Part 3

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by admin on May 26, 2010

By Peter MacGibbon

What does the tale of the Chelsea and Wakefield, Quebec community centre projects tell us as citizens trying to manage the rurban (rural/urban) phenomenon?

Know your community. Understand its geography and population, and know which locations are likely to attract resident’s activities and for what. Accept the fact that many will have a different vision less prominent than the one forwarded by profiteurs who have a constant stake in the bottom-line. Read the public mood and listen to what people are saying. Recognize how seemingly peripheral issues, such as ongoing tax increases and lack of essential services, will undermine a vision that doesn’t respond to them.

Look at previous successes in community branding and build on them. Chelsea established itself as an environmentally-innovative community in the 1990′s as the first North American municipality to ban outright the use of pesticide and herbicide sprays. Now the community’s image is one of a battleground for developments conceived and pushed through from behind council doors.

Engage everyone. Inform people every step of the way, ideally obtaining early public buy-in, as in the Wakefield Co-op’s membership campaign. Involve stakeholders from a cross-section of the community, not just politicians or “leaders” chosen by them. Explore alternative visions until the community can arrive at one that it feels truly comfortable with, even if that vision seems less ambitious than leadership would like. Never dismiss “squeaky wheels” in favour of some unproven silent majority. Dissenting voices in Wakefield were given their full say so that public opinion could judge the relative merit of their ideas.

Avoid “house-of-cards” planning. Tying a major project to a string of pre-requisite developments leaves it vulnerable if one or more of them should fail. Chelsea’s community centre plan is predicated on the construction of a sewage system for its so-called centre-ville, a system which is to be paid for by the construction of a high-density housing development, itself hotly-contested by local residents in a referendum that ended with the tie-breaking vote being cast by (guess who?) the mayor. The project focus thus shifted from the community it was meant to serve, to a business plan that had to be accommodated at all costs.

Play fair. People don’t appreciate being told there is a whole new status quo based on the results of a few swing votes. Democracy does not mean “winner takes all”, and it looks especially bad if the winner then sets about trying to silence further opposition. This behaviour will inevitably come back to haunt the winner when Murphy’s Law kicks in and things go wrong.

The soil quality of the much-ballyhooed private land donated to Chelsea for its community centre was not properly assessed before the project budget was set. Now the centre will require at least a million dollars’ worth of additional reinforcement to the building’s foundation, perhaps the first of many hidden costs coming to light. As of this writing, Chelsea Foundation had not met the pre-conditions set by the provincial and federal funders for the project, with not one dollar forthcoming, nor one shovelful of construction earth overturned.

The Wakefield-La Pêche Community Centre Cooperative has meanwhile signed an agreement to receive its promised funding, and plans to break ground on the construction project this summer. Unforeseen shortfalls on costs will be covered by donated time, skills, and materials from within the community itself. The philosophy of cooperation seems to be working.

Peter MacGibbon lives in Chelsea and is a project director at 3ci – Carleton Centre for Community Innovation. This is the last in a three-part series, originally published at www.therurbanfringe.com.