Local group fighting to keep east end green space

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

A group of concerned community members are calling on the Town of Fort Frances and other stakeholders to save the green space on the former St. Michael’s school grounds.

The group of 58 community members is calling itself Save the Knights of Columbus Park – Green Space for Kids in East Fort Frances, and their mission is to preserve the playground equipment and green space that currently exists next to the old St. Michael’s school building. Recently the property was sold to and is currently owned by the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board (RRDSSAB), who have announced plans to turn the old school building into a combined seniors housing and EarlyON centre, and convert the green space into several apartment units and parking spaces. At a town of Fort Frances council meeting in April of this year, council granted DSSAB’s request to rezone the property to Residential Type 2 (RS), with a site-specific permitted accessory use as an EarlyON centre within the seniors’ apartment building.

Letters received by council in regards to the matter were both for and against the rezoning request.

The problem with redeveloping the park, the group said, is that the space represents a portion of the little remaining park space in the area, particularly as spaces like the former Huffman school grounds were developed into housing. According to documents provided by the group, since 1970 the town has lost seven green or undeveloped spaces east of Victoria avenue. Among these spaces are the grounds of the Memorial Sports Centre, where according to the group was a baseball and football field, the new Robert Moore school, which removed one baseball diamond, and the aforementioned Huffman court.

According to emails and documents provided by the group to the Fort Frances Times, they are urging the town of Fort Frances to “arrange a land exchange agreement with the purchaser (RRDSSAB) to acquire green space at 820 Fifth Street East… for the creation of a park maintained by the Town of Fort Frances,” the group wrote.

“In exchange, RRDSSAB would receive a similar sized piece of land within Fort Frances on which to build its’ planned family housing.”

With the designation of the space as a town park, the group is also calling for a memorial plaque to be installed which recognizes the efforts of community members who made the park a reality in the first place, as well as allowing the outdoor hockey rink built and maintained in past years by Walter Horban to continue in the future.

In the documents provided by the group, they highlight that in June of 1990, when the park was first opened, reporting outlined that the park was the subject of a joint-use agreement between the town and Northwest Catholic District School Board (NWCDSB). Originally funded by parents of school-aged children at St. Michael’s school, $35,000 was raised to help make the park a reality, much of it through lunches cooked by those same parents. A one-time donation of $5,000 was also made by the Knights of Columbus, for whom the park was named.

The group held an in-person walkthrough of the Knights of Columbus park and accompanying green spaces on May 25, both to spread word of their cause and open a line of dialogue with invited members of town council, DSSAB and NWCDSB. Group co-organizer Scott Fawcett, along with several other members of the group and some of those who had been responsible for raising the money for the park in the late 80s were also on hand to share their experiences with living near the park and watching the impact it has had on children in the area.

One such member was Diane Lovisa, who toured members of the media through the park space alongside Patty Boileau and Delaine McLeod. Lovisa stressed that it was the parents themselves who pushed for and organized the drive to build the park, both for kids at St. Michael’s school as well as for other children and families in the immediate area.

“We initiated a lot of fundraising,” Lovisa said.

“We did it in about a year or two. The plans were drawn out, at first it was a four-stage project we were going to take on, but we were so successful in raising funds – and also had the Knights of Columbus onboard – we were able to continue with the project and get it all done. We had parents of the children attending the school and also from the neighbourhood come, and along with a representative of the equipment company… we put this together, so it was the hard work of the parents.”

Richard Boileau, another community member of the group and someone who was involved with the original park project, confirmed Lovisa’s information. He shared that the parents were also motivated to raise $40,000 to replace an old wooden structure, which he said was worn down and dangerous, with a new play structure that would better stand the tests of time. Since that time, he and other community members have seen how popular and well-used by those in the immediate area the park has been. Boileau pointed out that much of the upkeep work done on the park since then has also been done by the community.

“Look at the wood on the structures, it’s worn out from use,” he said.

“Probably half of the wood has already been replaced. We replace boards every year, and it’s ‘we,’ not the school board. This has been a neighbourhood project forever.”

Fawcett also expressed concerns with part of DSSAB’s plans to relocate the existing play structure to install closer to the school when it becomes the EarlyON centre, saying that it is unlikely that the parts of the structure under the ground will still be sound enough after 30 years to be able to be successfully dug up and re-installed in a new location.

Fawcett and his group have submitted an appeal to the province’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), formerly of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and as of June 1, 2021 now the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT). The appeal can take up to six months to be heard.

Earlier this week at the town’s Planning and Development Executive Committee meeting, councillor Doug Judson raised the possibility of further developing the parcel of land dedicated to the park on Phair Avenue, which he says will address the community’s concerns about losing green and park space in the area. The committee recommended town administration examine the possible park expansion as a potential item to be included on the town’s 2022 capital budget.