Jarvis: The Progressive City That Could

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Windsor Star/Anne Jarvis

A city that builds bike paths. A city that invests in libraries. A city that restores heritage buildings.

Where am I?  I’m in the new Windsor.

“We are a very different city than we once were,” Mayor Eddie Francis declared in his State of the City address last week.

We sure are. Windsor is diversifying, from CS Wind to the planned cargo hub. It’s more modern, with a new border route under construction, reconstructed major intersections, new underpasses. It has more amenities — the WFCU Centre, the aquatic centre. It even looks different, beginning with its newly landscaped gateways.

But perhaps the most striking change is in the way we think. The Automotive Capital of Canada is becoming a progressive city.

The city that used to budget a pittance for bike paths and then never even spent it will finally finish the Windsor Loop, 42.5-kilometres of bike paths around our perimeter, Francis announced in a speech that stood out for its emphasis on building community. He’ll ask council for $3.5 million in the new year to not only complete the remaining 12.4 kilometres but add an extra 17.8 kilometres of bike lanes, paths and multi-use trails to connect other bike routes to the loop.

Francis also called for council to invest $5.8 million in our libraries, starting with moving the main library to the core. A library is one of the most important services a city can offer people. A “gathering place for learning,” Francis called it. It should be in the heart of the city.

Opening a new branch at Devonshire Mall is a stroke of genius, introducing the library to the crowds of people there every weekend. Just like the Art Gallery of Windsor, when it had a storefront in the mall, the library’s profile will suddenly jump.

The Budimir branch in South Windsor will be renovated and modernized at long last. This is a popular branch. If you want to snag the latest book here, you have to be fast and reserve it. That’s the way our libraries should be.

The tiny, cramped, South Walkerville branch will get a new home in an expanded Optimist Community Centre at Memorial Park, a busy place after school where more kids will be introduced to the library.

But the most interesting part of the plan is moving the Sandwich library into a newly restored historic Sandwich fire hall on Mill Street. The fire hall, built in 1921, and its attached stables, built in 1915, is a cool, heritage building. But it’s abandoned and crumbling.

The Olde Sandwich Towne Community Improvement Plan recommended finding a new use for it to capitalize on the history and character of the west side and help create an interesting and vibrant community. Old fire halls, which have been converted to offices, museums, restaurants, breweries and stores, create excitement, a city report stated last August. Their architecture is unique, from their hose towers to their brass poles. Old equipment could hang from the walls, making this a lot more than a library, making it an attraction.

A year ago, council considered using the property for a pay-and-display parking lot. That’s something the old Windsor would do. But this is the new Windsor, and this is a much cooler idea.

The WFCU Centre, the aquatic centre, the planned new museum and cultural hub, university and college campuses downtown, heritage buildings brought back to life, bike paths and now modernized libraries – “building up our community,” Francis called it.

Add to that the plans to replace the city’s 24,000 high-pressure sodium streetlights and their ugly yellow haze with bright, energy-efficient LED lights and to begin replacing loud, dirty diesel buses with quiet, clean electric buses, all the while saving on operating costs.

“Quality of life matters,” Francis said. Not just to us, but to others who are considering moving here or visiting. And to investors. Jobs follow people, the new thinking goes. And if that’s true, building our community is as important as offering tax breaks.

We have to ask ourselves, Francis said, not only what will Windsor look like in the future, but, “How will it be perceived?” It won’t be perceived as a lunch bucket town. Not any more. It will be seen as the progressive city that could.