Making a Recession Work For Ontario’s Community Landmarks

Catherine Nasmith, President Architectural Conservancy of Ontario

In times of recession governments turn to investing in infrastructure, and that often translates into investment in sewers, roads, and sometimes other community facilities.

Everyone remembers the great investments that the U.S. and Canadian governments made during the depression in highways. Few remember that it was during these times that both government also chose to make major investments in the development of National Park systems, and in preserving the nation’s heritage landmarks. Often these parks included National Historic Sites.

As the stock markets run amok many are now calling on governments to use their powers to invest in public projects, to use this time to build the infrastructure for the 21st century and beyond. Its time we reminded our governments that heritage and environment projects are worthy contenders for that public investment.

Let’s speculate on what would happen if we transferred even 1% of Ontario’s road-building budget into heritage conservation. Reports on the Ministry of Transportation website show that Ontario spends approximately 1 billion dollars a year building and repairing highways in Ontario. 1% of that would be ten million dollars per year.

Before the program was cancelled by the first Harper government, the national Commercial Heritage Properties Investment Fund distributed a modest 25.1 million dollars over the approximately 3 year period that it was active. For the sake of argument lets say it spent more or less ten million a year. According to Mesmin Pierre Director National Historic Sites Planning and Programs Branch, the program funded 46 projects, or about 15 projects a year. Some projects received the maximum grant of 1 million, but most received less.

The final report on the program will not be available for about a year, but early anecdotal reports indicate that the government investment is expected to come back in tax revenue within five years, and that for every dollar invested by government, the private sector invested about eight.

The fund was set up to pay 20% of all project costs, soft and hard included, up to a maximum of $1M dollars. To be eligible for funding the properties had to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and work had to be done in accordance with the “Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.” For the most part these standards are just plain good building science, preserving construction methods that predate the petroleum economy – building science that is by today’s standards very light on the land. Investing in older buildings conserves all the cultural and environmental resources embodied in those buildings…and keeps our landmarks out of landfill.

Many of the property owners who applied had been unable to make their projects financially viable without the assistance of CHPIF. The program enabled them to restore heritage sites, bringing them back from varying states of demolition by neglect and returning them to utility, often with ensuing economic development spin-offs in their communities.

Two projects in Ontario that benefitted from the CHPIF program were the Distillery District in Toronto, and the Alton Mill, near Orangeville. The Distillery District is now one of Toronto’s premier arts address and tourist attraction.

Jordan Grant, the owner of the Alton Mill is on record as saying that project “could never have happened without CHPIF”. For the record, I am the project architect for the Alton Mill so have had a ringside seat. The project is still not quite finished, but already is spurring investment in other near derelict properties in the village of Alton.

For over two years a crew of ½ dozen people have been employed full time in the restoration, along with many subcontractors and a large team of consultants. The owner estimates the project cost $200.00/ square foot soft and hard costs included, but also notes that it would have been impossible to create anything of similar quality for that amount. At a recent ribbon cutting ceremony the Mayor, MP, MPP and many friends, tenants were present.

So lets imagine that Ontario decided to set up a modest 10 million dollar a year program to invest in Ontario’s heritage properties. The CHPIF success suggests such an investment could make the difference between landmark and landfill for at least 15 projects each year. That is a lot of happy occasions, and lots of chances a year for taking political bows. When was the last time any of us went to a ribbon cutting for a new overpass?

Investment in heritage is not only an investment in community pride, it generates more jobs than investment in new construction. New construction involves a much higher level of energy use, spent not only in construction but resource extraction, manufacturing of materials, transportation of materials, and the use of heavy equipment. Heritage conservation generally needs much more labour…employing more highly skilled people than any other form of construction.

All in all, heritage investment is a win for everyone involved, environmentally responsible with spin off economic development. Such investment in the U.S. has revived many small communities.

The time has come to remind governments that investing in our heritage is not charity, but an important investment in community identity, cultural and tourism facilities, and green job creation.


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