First in a two-part series
PART 1 — MV CITIZENS EXPRESS THEIR CONCERNS
Residents Concerned over Landmark’s Decline
Several Madawaska Valley residents are expressing their concerns about the decline of the Barry’s Bay Railway Station. A common theme in their comments is that a negligent (if not hostile) attitude, interference and micro-management from municipal council have diminished and threatened this landmark and vibrant community hub.
In May 2016, MV Council planned a public meeting to decide the future of The Station by looking at its costs and benefits. Because of high interest (probably generated by what appeared to be a months-long vendetta against the Station by some councillors) the meeting outgrew the Council chambers and was re-scheduled for the Paul J. Yakabuski Arena where about 200 people turned up. Staff presentations (follow link here) and the testimony and presence of concerned locals demonstrated the significant value the Station brings to the municipality. Recreation & Community Development Coordinator Paul Nopper explained the Station’s cost to the municipality in terms of cups of Tim Hortons’ coffee per ratepayer. Council voted unanimously to make no change to its approach.
Since then, Station staff have resigned following allegations of harassment and stress-related reasons. Paul Nopper has been fired “without cause”; programs have been cancelled; and, due to a drastic reduction in hours, tourists have been left frustrated. Long-time volunteers are effectively barred from the Station. Citizens wonder how, in a short period of time, a vibrant institution, which was the envy of communities throughout Eastern Ontario, could effectively cease operating. They wonder what this means for economic and cultural growth in the Madawaska Valley.
Former Mayor Values Tourism
Former MV Mayor John Hildebrandt is attuned to the economic needs of the community and recognizes the importance of tourism.
“Without the business generated between May and October, many local businesses would have to close-up shop. The Train Station and its staff are the front line and the most effective means of promoting our township to thousands of people annually. Visitors spend their money here on a cup of coffee or meal, shopping and filling up their gas tanks. They discover a thriving business community and note it as a place to return to. Maybe they’ll even buy a seasonal place. Most importantly, maybe they’ll like the area so much they’ll retire or set up a business here.”
Wilno Resident Sees Connection between Culture and Economy
Nancy Checko is retired from a recreation, culture and tourism-related career with Algonquin Park.
“It is so sad that the spectacular work the staff at the Station was doing has been interrupted, if not ended,” she says. “For a small community, the Station was a very dynamic institution. When I compare what the Station accomplished to what we were doing in Algonquin Park, I have to say it was incredible. I just can’t understand why people don’t see the value of the arts and culture and their economic effect. Instead of losing staff and programs all of us in the three communities in the Madawaska Valley should be co-operating to build a strong and vital municipality.”
Local Artists are Saddened over Loss of “Beating Heart”
Madawaska Valley artists are saddened to see the decline of programs at the gallery and museum. These included exhibitions, workshops, classes and lectures. Eva Kaczkowska says the “community is much poorer” due to the interruption of staff and programming at this institution. As an artist who frequently showed her work at the South of 60 Gallery, Kaczkowska was well-acquainted with the Station and its programs:
“It was a beating heart. It was something that united all of the artists of the area. Its program of exhibitions inspired us to create works. There is no substitute.”
Kim Hanewich, who has lived and worked in the Madawaska Valley for thirty years, spoke of South of 60 and its programs:
“I watched the quality of the gallery and its programs grow over the years. It became the envy of artists and other communities throughout the Valley. Until this year, it never faltered except for interference. I just don’t understand this destruction of quality effort and years of people’s endeavours.”
Madawaska Valley Children Lose Opportunities
If art programs and camps do not continue, Madawaska Valley children will be denied opportunities that enhance their educations and enrich community life. Parent Yvette Boudreau-Smith comments that:
“The Station has been a place where children can express themselves through art. Music and the arts are vital parts of learning and development for children. Fortunately, the Railway Station has always had art programs available for children and youth. There has been a wide variety of art courses and camps available to all ages of children at very reasonable cost.”
Lois Yantha, wife of former Councillor Sylvie Yantha, also recognizes the importance of the arts in the development of community:
“Art provides a common ground for social interaction of all ages. By helping the arts to flourish in all its forms we can create a community where everyone feels like they belong. Sylvie and I have heard the comment that taxpayer dollars should not fund a gallery like South of 60. Nowadays that is a very naive way of thinking. Things have changed a lot, and nowadays arts and culture are important parts of economic and community development”
Long-time Volunteer Contrasts Station and Arena
Bob and Cathie Corrigan have volunteered at the Station for almost thirty years. Given their commitment to this cultural landmark, it is no surprise that Corrigan’s comments are pointed and reflect dissatisfaction.
“The current council is destroying Barry’s Bay,” he says. “A couple of councillors simply want to get rid of South of 60 and close the Station’s tourist office for most of the year. It looks like they are getting their way. All this, to save some money. Sometimes you have to spend money to make things interesting for the people who live here and for any visitors.”
What’s in Store for the Station and the Madawaska Valley?
More than six months have now passed and yet MV Council has not advertised for a replacement for the position of Tourism Co-ordinator/Curator of South of 60 and the Railway Museum. This apparent complacency will have negative cultural effects since there is no one to organize art shows, exhibits and programs, but readers might want to consider the potentially negative economic effects on the entire Madawaska Valley. Who will perform the many important annual tasks which support tourism and economic development? These include, but are not limited to, writing grant applications; attending trade shows and conferences; representing the community in the Ontario Highlands Tourist Organization and the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association; liaising with the members of the Business Improvement Area; promoting the community in local newspapers, on local radio stations, websites and social media; assisting with long-standing annual events such as the Friday Farmers’ Market.
Local businesses will soon feel the pinch of the cancellation of the Opeongo Heritage Cup, but what will happen this coming summer? Now is the time to be preparing for the 2018 summer tourist season and there is no staff position dedicated to this important work. Councillors and the Mayor have said they are reviewing and revising job descriptions, but it may already be too late to get things back on the rails.
In the next issue:
RAILWAY STATION’S BENEFIT TO AREA DERAILED
PART 2 –MEASURABLE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL RETURNS LOST FOR MADAWASKA VALLEY
Readers may be interested to see Mark Woermke’s blog The Prussian Hills Blog. His latest post is about the history of the Railway Station and features his script “Meet Me at the Station” which was performed there in August 2017.
As a former resident, and frequent visitor, to the Valley, I’ve long noted a regressive tendency to ‘snatch defeat from the jaws of victory’ when it comes to promoting the unique aspects of the area. The unfortunate events around the closing of the Station certainly appear to follow this pattern. Barry’s Bay needs to promote itself as being outward-looking, progressive and attuned to today’s cultural environment, not one that ended many years ago. The Station was (and hopefully will be again) an expression of hope for the future, and a determination to redefine a wonderful community.
Great article Mark and I look forward to Part 2. I, too, am sorely disappointed by the actions of the Madawaska Valley Council regarding the arts and recreation. So short-sighted in my opinion. You have to spend a bit to make a bit. The station is like the centre of Barry’s Bay and area and offered artists an opportunity to gather and display their talents. With the station closed, there is no other venue. Listen up and work for the people you represent. It’s not all about roads and bridges. A bridge of this kind connects all kinds of people and encourages people to visit and enjoy what we have to offer.
Barry’s Bay Council’s recent decision not to replace the very capable staff of the Railway Station Arts and Tourism Centre and leave the building effectively closed and dark since September is so utterly baffling to me that I have been unable to find acceptable to words to express my dismay. The only phrase to remotely explain their strange decision is to say “they have cut off their noses to spite their face”… this is not the action of a responsible town council. They will lose valuable tourism dollars and discourage visitors from wishing to make this area a permanent home. I have to shut up now or this comment will be deemed too flammable for publication.
Who are these council people? And what the heck are they doing? And when can they be voted OUT?
The next municipal election will be held Monday, October 22, 2018.
To not use this landmark to its fullest potential is nothing more than the single worst decision council has ever made. It’s hard to believe that people elected to represent the best interests of the community can be so short sighted as to not see the economic benefit this resource generates. It’s very sad to see the town I grew up in moving so quickly backwards.
As a newer member of this community, I’ve been so saddened to see what’s going on with our Council, and what appears to be a very short-sighted attack on culteral and recreational facilities and events. Additionally, the number of local businesses closing or up for sale is shocking – and a sure sign that immediate action needs to be taken. To create thriving community that will attract young professionals and families, these programs and events are critical. If our councillors think for one moment that arts, culture and recreational opportunities are not highly valued by exsisting and potential residents, they are completely off the mark. It’s no wonder the community is struggling to recruit badly needed doctors and other professionals. I’m sure the owners of just about any business in town can verify the economic value of these facilities and events that draw visitors – and their spending money.
THANK YOU for presenting this important article. I have gained valuable insight to the matter and I am in agreement with the comments left, thus far. Frankly as an MV resident, I am embarrassed by the very backward and under-handed approach council has taken, as well as their apparent bullying and lack of vision. Without exception, every member of our family (young and old) has benefited from the operations at the train station (I prefer South of 60) in some way, and I mourn our loss of this facility and the talented folks involved.
Congratulations to the civic-minded creators of the MV Current, and especially to Mark Woermke for his thoughtful column. We need people like him on council who want to grow the community, not shrivel it.
This ineffective and squabbling town council is responsible for this deplorable situation. If they don’t clean up their act and act like the representatives they purported to be when voted in, they will find themselves voted out in the next municipal election. I, for one, will welcome that opportunity.
I cannot imagine what could inspire such small-minded and backward thought and action in closing probably the most vibrant welcoming public space Ialong the central Hwy 60 corridor! While other small communities strive for effective “branding” to showcase their history, art and culture, MV council effectively wipes out years of dedicated and successful effort by South of Sixty staff and volunteers. This heartbreaking and short-sighted decision which will leave summer visitors shaking their heads in disbelief and dismay and sends a powerful negative message to those who might otherwise “choose to stay for a lifetime”. Museum, the arts, heritage and history, are the focal points for tourism dollars and create a community profile .which attracts much needed business to the existing shops and services. Look forward to reading Mark Woermke’s second article about this sad fiasco.
As a resident of Bonnechere Valley Township, I envy that you have a beautiful good-sized tourist facility right in the heart of Barry’s Bay with lots of parking around it. Eganville would love to be able to boast of such a building and a connection to the railroads of the past. I don’t know the cost of maintaining and manning the Railway Station but surely with some sales of tourist items, donations from artists who display their work, grants, free summer students, etc. the net cost can’t be a lot. In terms of return on investment, just like for advertising, this is always difficult to assess accurately but logic tells me that Barry’s Bay and MV will be worse off financially, culturally and socially if the Railway Station is closed.
Update Jan. 15th MV Council Meeting:
Last October, three months after Paul Nopper was dismissed, MV Council announced it was undertaking a major review of Recreation Department staff and responsibilities with no outcome expected for at least three or four months. To explain their failure to advertise for any of the vacancies in the Recreation Department, the Mayor stated they were working from a blank sheet of paper.
Fast forward to today’s Council meeting. Anyone who expected to hear about progress was disappointed. The CAO tabled for discussion the very same job description dated September 2013 that resulted in Paul Nopper’s hiring. Despite almost six months since they dismissed him, Council had not yet even agreed whether they should base an ad on the old job description or, as previously promised, work from a blank sheet of paper to create a new one. By the end of the meeting, they still hadn’t agreed.
I will not bore you with full details of the lengthy and inconclusive discussion other than to report that two Councillors insist “economic development” should no longer be a responsibility of the Recreation and Community Development Coordinator (assuming that is still the name of the position they decide on). Council will revisit this at the Finance and Administration Committee meeting on 29th January. They say they intend to advertise for someone to fill what remains an unspecified temporary position in February – echoes of the recent protracted saga of the “Part-Time Temporary Combermere Facilities Coordinator”.
I know that some councillors have lamented that we were the only Renfrew County community to have had a tourist office open year-round and that this was a waste of time and money. On the contrary, rather than complain about this aberration, we should be proud that we, especially as a small community, were able to accomplish such a feat. Along with the open tourist office, a railway museum was included as well as a gallery for a continually-changing display of the Arts.
WONDERFUL article that says it all! The train station MUST open soon for our economy in the WHOLE of the Madawaska Valley.
Agree with everything you have to say and I’m glad you’ve supported your views with local residents who have been affected. It is a shame – in both uses of the word.