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Citizens group calls for action at the Grand Trunk Community Hub

What's next for the Grand Trunk Community Hub? At a forum this week, interested parties spoke about the past, present, and possible future of the site in the downtown core. Guests were told there needs to be more involvement from the many bright minds in the city of Stratford

In may not be realistic to have shovels in the ground within the next four years, but a citizens group wants action at the Grand Trunk Community Hub.

A forum held this week to discuss what to do on land housing the former CNR shops called for the creation of a task force within 90 days of the formation of a new city council (municipal elections are next month).

Chunks of the site have sat unchanged for decades. The subject of litigation after the city expropriated the land from former owner Lawrence Ryan, plans for a community hub have progressed in recent years, slowed by the pandemic and shifting funding commitments from provincial governments.

Currently home to the University of Waterloo's Stratford School of Interaction and Design, the local YMCA and a free municipal parking area, there are no shortage of interested parties wanting something done with the downtown property. 

The forum took place at the banquet hall of Copperlight, formally known as Knox Presbyterian Church. It was sponsored by the Grand Trunk Block Citizens for Action and moderated by Craig Thompson.

Thompson invited guests to talk about the site’s past, present, and future potential, before opening up the floor to questions. 

Rick Matthews, a member of the Grand Trunk Block Citizens for Action, called on private citizens to do their part.

“Stratford has so many great minds,” he said. “It’s really not fair for city council and staff to have this dumped on their shoulders and expect them to figure it all out. They need support and they need the support of a task force of Stratford citizens who can, along with our representatives, devise a strategy and plan for the development of this property.”

Past, present, and possible future

The site is 18 acres on the edge of the downtown core of Stratford. The old CNR shops buildings is about four acres, leaving much of the plot open for development. The City of Stratford acquired the property a number of years ago and the existing Official Plan (OP) designation allows for a wide range of uses. 

Discussions surrounding the site have stopped and started many times over the years and spawned countless ideas.

Bruce Whitaker, a speaker at the forum, said having too many ideas can be a bad thing and lead to paralysis. 

Discussion waned from demolition to repurposing the building into a community hub. The local YMCA and the University of Waterloo have both expressed interest: the YMCA wants a new facility and the university owns lands in behind the current campus that is earmarked for a residence.

After a 2015 study, it was determined that the site’s former use was not a deterrent for converting it into a community hub. It needs to be cleaned and restored, but the cost is negligible compared to demolishing it. 

A key point the forum panel stressed is that it is easy to get lost in suggestions about what the city needs. The forum was not to discuss what should be done nor for local politicians to pledge for certain suggestions. It was for discussion, education, and to rally the community again before the election. 

Currently, the city is completing repairs on the roof and removing asbestos from the site, which are necessary regardless of what is decided for the building. 

All candidates in the upcoming municipal election were invited. Mayoral candidate and current councillor Kathy Vassilakos said that the city took a deliberate, step-by-step approach to the site. This task force, she urged, has to do the same thing.

"That task force will also have to be deliberative and careful in how it actually communicates with the public -- how it receives feedback and who it receives feedback from. If they become this task force that is all knowing and isn't doing that, then, it becomes that 'star chamber' idea."

The star chamber was a medieval court of England which was started to ensure the fair enforcement of laws. It eventually became known for political oppression for its strict, arbitrary rules and a lack of due process. 

More information about the Cooper site can be found on the City of Stratford’s website.