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350 turn out to pro-Admiral rally

Morgan Ian Adams

COLLINGWOOD - Build it, and build it now.

That was the message delivered to an audience of approximately 350 people who crowded into the Royal Canadian Legion, Sunday afternoon, in a show of support for the Admiral Collingwood Place development.

The event was organized by Dunc Hawkins, Brian Hickey and Don Paul; all three have emphasized they have no ties to the project's developer Steve Assaff, nor have a "vested interest" in seeing the property develop.

Sunday's rally featured six speakers, including downtown business owners, and residents both recently-moved to the community, and long-time residents.

"That was a big show of support," Hawkins said after the meeting. "Now it's on to the council."

Council is expected to deliberate on zoning and official plan amendments to allow the six-storey residential and commercial project to go ahead. Up until Sunday, councillors had only regularly heard from local heritage advocates calling on the town to respect the bylaw governing the downtown heritage district which limits development to three stories; the six council members who were in the legion's auditorium would have gotten a completely different message from the public.

"Heritage, in the sense of the architectural attractiveness of buildings, is an elusive term," said former mayor Ron Emo, one of six people who took to the stage. "Our streetscape is constantly in flux... yes, we need (heritage) guidelines, but they must be flexible to allow the entrepreneurs putting their money at risk to develop their vision."

"We need a town that's evolving," said Hickey. "This (Admiral Collingwood Place) is a beautiful building... looking forward 50 years from now, there will be a heritage committee that will say, 'Let's keep that building'."

Others took a more blunt approach. Downtown businessman Wayne Noble took direct aim at those arguing in favour of limiting the height to three stories, accusing them of "only recently moving to Collingwood.

"None of these people employ anyone, or have their business in the downtown," said Noble, who received loud applause on several of his points. "This is a small group of people with small interests attempting to derail (the project)."

He also suggested that several of the people opposed "will eventually buy" a unit in the building.

Other speakers were less caustic, though no less passionate with their opinion the project should go ahead as proposed. Jack Marley - who noted he's only lived in Collingwood for three years - said the future viability of the downtown could be in question unless the project went ahead.

"It is appealing and in keeping with the area," said Marley, cautioning the town could continue to be stuck with a hole at the southern entrance to the main street. "(The current site) is an eyesore and a wound on the town... a decision is needed. Quit the quibbling."

Lesley Paul, who owns Stuart Ellis IDA, said she was proud to be a downtown business owner, noting the main street is where her business belongs.

"A southern anchor to our downtown is long overdue," she said. "We need to set aside our fear of heights... Admiral Collingwood Place is important to the viability of our downtown.

"It's time to move forward, into the future... it's time to stop stalling."

Margo Bulmer, whose late husband John maintained his law practice in the downtown, praised the "foresight" of downtown landowners who have refurbished their heritage buildings.

However, she noted, the community "can't tie itself so much to ideals that the project remains at a standstill."

Organizers have also launched a petition similar to the 2007 petition that garnered 2,200 names, calling on the council of the day to move ahead with the project. By the time Sunday's rally was wrapped up, about 450 names had been collected between rally attendees, and folks who were next door in the legion's bar area. It's expected several stores in the downtown will have copies of the petition.

"We're thrilled with the numbers who took the time to come out," said Hawkins. "The current council is handcuffed by a flawed bylaw that was passed by the last council.

"There's still a row to hoe (for council); the bylaw needs to be amended, and there are still going to be those who think this not ought to proceed."

"Talking to the people who came, they just wanted to be able to voice their opinion," added Hickey, who noted during the rally that it was the 'silent majority' in attendance. "These are just nice, regular people, they're not activists."

And, in a nod to the report by the town-hired heritage planner that was critical of the project, "the people who live in town are the real experts," said Hickey. "In the end, the people will speak."

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