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