Thursday, July 25, 2024

Change Can Be Difficult to Embrace in a Small Town, but Sometimes it’s Necessary

Stephen Vance, Editor

It is perhaps not surprising that Meaford, like similar small rural communities, struggles to embrace proposed ideas or developments given the steady erosion we’ve seen in recent years of many of the qualities and characteristics that small towns have historically enjoyed.

Just a few decades ago many small towns were bustling with energy, with thriving downtown shopping areas and even industrial operations that provided good jobs without the need for commuting.

Recent years however have not been kind to small towns. Retail districts have been gutted thanks initially to the advent of shopping malls in neighbouring urban centres, and more recently by the surge in online shopping, and industry has largely vacated small towns in favour of locations close to major highways in communities with large populations from which to draw a workforce.

It might seem strange that, in a struggling small town like Meaford, that residents would oppose developments that could bring jobs and an increased contribution to the local economy. And though I have been hearing the term NIMBY (not in my back yard) with greater frequency, even from members of Council, I’m not so sure that the NIMBY label is completely fair.

It’s true that in recent years this community has seen significant opposition raised to a number of proposals. Sometimes the opposition is easy to understand, as was the case more than a decade ago when there was a proposal to bring a trash incineration operation to the community, while at other times opposition might less easy to understand.

Over the past decade in this community we’ve seen significant community opposition to wind farms and solar farms, or increased height allowance for a proposed downtown redevelopment of some old and crumbling buildings, to name a just a few. In recent times we’ve seen a groundswell of opposition to a proposed pumped storage facility on Meaford’s tank range, a boutique hotel, increased height request for a long-term care centre, and a luxury glamping operation.

And it’s not just proposed developments for which we as a community have raised opposition. We’ve seen opposition to allowing snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles into the urban area to fuel up or to grab a meal at a local restaurant, and we’ve seen opposition to the harbour master plan, not to mention significant opposition to the construction of a badly needed new library.

As this short list of previous issues shows, this community is no stranger to turning out in large numbers to a council meeting to voice opposition or concerns about new proposals, and those who argue that we have become a NIMBY community might very well have a point. I too have struggled with whether this community has truly become a NIMBY community, and if so, why?

After much reflection, I think that it is too simple to toss around the NIMBY term, as it suggests that a community opposes everything without reason, but it can be argued that there are often reasons to raise concerns, and even to object to any proposal.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone expressing opposition to anything; I think people are perfectly within their rights to do so. And I think that in a small town like Meaford, opposition to any proposal often begins from a place of fear. A fear of losing a quality of life that is coveted by many, a fear of big city folks moving in and having their way, a fear of change. I can appreciate those fears, but I can also appreciate that we live in a slowly dying town.

A cruise through our downtown retail district affords a view of many empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings. Industry is a distant memory, and as a community we have been increasingly reliant on the hope that tourism will be our saviour – but tourism often requires new developments, or additional service opportunities that the existing community might not be prepared for.

I’m not suggesting that any one group has been wrong for raising opposition to any individual proposal – we all have our areas of primary concern, and we all have our limits as to what we are willing to accept. The current proposal for a six-storey structure on the old MCS property that would house a new long-term care centre along with other housing options for seniors, for example, doesn’t bother me personally. I have no issue with a six-storey structure, and if anything I see many benefits to the community from the proposed development. But that can be an easy opinion for me to hold as I don’t live in close proximity to the property, so I have no fears of six stories towering above me, but others do, and they can and should raise concerns. Though, as I often caution residents, having your say does not equate to having your way. Fifty or a hundred or several hundred individuals might have significant and rational opposition to a proposal, and those views need to be considered, but we are a community of 11,000, and decisions in large part need to be made while considering the community as a whole.

The delicate balance we need to find, however, is in protecting our rural small town way of life while trying to keep this community alive with employment opportunities and facilities that could help draw that often discussed tourist dollar, and that is not easy. It will always and forever see us entertaining proposals that will carry with them significant opposition. At some point though, I think the economic health of the community at large needs to be more heavily weighed – it can be easy to stand in opposition, but it is much more challenging to to bring economic opportunities to small towns, and perhaps we have been looking too many gift-horses in the mouth.

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