Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Preserving Lunenburg's Heritage of Common Sense

Lunenburg has a rich architectural heritage that is protected by its UNESCO World Heritage Status. For the most part, that's a good thing. But like every concept taken to its extreme, without discretion or a vision of sustainablilty, a good thing can become a bad one. The above model represents the plans, drawn by architect Gerry Rolfsen,  for the repurposing of a very rotten barn, know as the Anderson Barn,  into much needed rental housing.  Here's a photo of the Anderson Barn in its current state.

 And here's where things have become contentious. The Board of the Lunenburg Heritage Society is opposing the demolition of this barn, built in the late 1870's, on the grounds that it is an important part of our heritage and its demolition would set a dangerous precedent.  Ordinarily I would agree, but not this time.

Although facts rarely come into play in the formation of public sentiment, I'm a firm believer that facts do matter. Here are the facts: The original intention of the current owner of this property was to preserve the building.  Two separate engineering reports have determined that the building is not salvageable. Every supporting structure in the barn is rotten. By all accounts this building should be condemned.  The rhetoric in town is that these engineering reports were commissioned by the property owner and are, therefore, suspect.  Engineering firms do not work for the customer.  They work for the integrity of their profession. If the barn is to be repurposed, there is no alternative to demolition.

O.K.  let's return to rhetoric for a moment.  The rhetoric is that the colourful buildings that make up the Unesco Fresco block on King st., owned by The Reiblings, are shining examples of how to avoid demolition and preserve heritage architecture.  Many would argue that those buildings actually were demolished.  It was a bespoke, hand crafted, demolition.  The buildings were held together with chains, while every single board was removed and replaced. A fine process for someone with millions of dollars, but the end result was still demolition.

Here are some more facts about the Anderson barn.  In it's lifetime, it has sustained two fires.  It was estimated, by the engineering firms that only 11% of the current building remains from the original structure.  Most of what we see now was cobbled together around 1940.   It is also inconveniently falling down the hill towards Montague st.  Pelham street was constructed to support horses and carriages, not delivery trucks.  The street is slowly falling into the building, pushing it down the hill. The building's demolition is inevitable.  A couple of good storms will save the property owner quite a bit of money.

Lunenburg's bureaucracy has three things available at their disposal to guide the destiny of the Anderson Barn.  There is a demolition permit; there is a development permit; and there is a policy to preserve heritage.  And so, all discussion, in regards to this property, pertains only to these three things.  We need to add a fourth item to this list- The repurposing of Heritage buildings. Without a mandate to repurpose heritage buildings,  so that they are useful to the present, we will inevitably lose our heritage buildings to neglect.  There aren't too many people that will be willing or financially able to preserve a rotten barn as a barn.  We just don't have that many cows in Lunenburg.  What we do have is a serious housing crisis.  We desperately need young people to move to Lunenburg, but there are very few full time rental units available.

The proposed replacement to the Anderson Barn will have 6, beautifully designed, 1 bedroom units.  These will not be seasonal rentals.   The deteriorating structural members will be replaced by a rationalized post and beam timber structure.  The current failing retaining wall will be replaced by a structurally sound wall that will save the building from its inevitable fate.  The proposed building will bring back many of the lost architectural details of the original barn. The plan is to build a new building that respects the architectual heritage of Lunenburg.

Nobody wants to see a heritage building demolished (unless you are a developer in Halifax) , but if we can't apply discretion to differentiate between a rotten shed, that is not salvageable and a building that is, then there are only two possible outcomes.  The first is that Lunenburg properties will only be bought by wealthy people, pushing out the diversity of people that make Lunenburg special.  And the second scenario is that people will not invest in the upkeep of their historically significant outbuildings and we will, inevitably,  lose them.

As well as having a rich architectural heritage, Lunenburg also has a rich heritage of common sense. My friend, Clayton, comes from old Lunenburg stock.  His grandfather was a sea captain and was known for his colourful language.  Clayton said that if his grandfather were alive today, he would certainly have this to say, "Sweet suffering blue eyed Jesus. It's rotten. Tear the Christly thing down and do something useful with the land."  I wonder if Unesco can protect common sense.  Here's the proposed view from Montague st.

Friday, September 16, 2016

You've got Four Years to Fix Democracy in Nova Scotia

If anybody would like to run Nova Scotia please raise your hand. Oh, thank you so much for coming forward.  You fine folks are now in charge of the direction of our province.

This is literally the case in many municipalities across rural Nova Scotia.  Annapolis Royal council- acclaimed, Mahone Bay Council - acclaimed, Port Hawkesbury mayor- acclaimed, Hants County - 5 of 11 councilors acclaimed, Town of Lunenburg council- 7 people running for 6 seats....   This is not a shining example of democracy in action. Running a municipality should not be on par with volunteering to clean the chalk board erasers.

Is it apathy?  I really don't think so. We are a province of dedicated volunteers and citizens that show up to support causes that are meaningful to us. I have never lived in a place with more community minded people than Nova Scotia.  But when it's time to run for council, most people pull the covers over their heads and wait for the elections to be over.  What's going on?

After the election on October 15th, new councillors will take their places around the council tables.  The first item on the agenda needs to be- Who is not in this room and how are we going to get them here in four years' time?  If everyone sitting at the council table is a man, there is a problem.  If everyone is over 50, there is a problem. If everyone is financially secure, there is a problem.  If everyone was born and bred in town, there is a problem.  If there is no racial diversity, there is a problem.  If everyone is retired, there is a problem. In order to solve this problem, council is going to have to consult with their community. 

Today I had a revelation.  I realized that I was one of seven relatively young women, that I know, who seriously considered running for Lunenburg Council, but ultimately decided against it. Every one of these women is intelligent and accomplished.  Most, like myself, run businesses in the town. In a province that is actively trying to attract women into politics, seven women who opted out is cause for concern.

Not offering for council often comes down to simple practicalities like meeting times.  Rural councils are not full time positions and the stipends, while sometimes generous, are reflective of this fact. It is not enough money to give up a day job. A 5:15 or mid-day meeting time might work very well for a retired person, but it doesn't work well for a person with a job, a business or a child. Move that meeting time to 6:15 and you have just made it easier for a working person or parent to come forward.   Many Nova Scotians need to travel for work.  If we wish to include these people on councils then occasionally Skyping into a meeting needs to be an option.

Now let's talk about engagement.  Council meetings are interesting.  This is where decisions are made regarding all the issues that most affect our lives.  Playgrounds, sewage treatment plants, fire protection, animal control, policing,  community gardens, farmers markets, street festivals, heritage preservation, development, what sort of businesses are allowed to operate in town and where they are allowed to operate, how we choose to spend tax dollars... all these things are discussed and decided at a council meeting.  But how can community members know that it's interesting if they can't make it to the meeting?  How can people know that the discussion is interesting if the sound system is broken and they can't hear?  How hard is it for the mayor or a councilor of a small town to simply post an upcoming council agenda to FaceBook with a brief description of the issues being discussed.  We don't need to hire a communications strategist to achieve this goal.   Council meetings are where people learn about municipal politics.  Attending meetings educates the next generation of leaders.  It needs to be the responsibility of municipal politicians to engage the public, so that we are always nurturing future politicians.  If citizens are not showing up to meetings, then something is very wrong and it needs to be fixed.

Any good teacher understands that information is best absorbed through participation.  Yes, ultimately, it is only the councilors who can debate and vote, but there is no reason, in a small town council, that some portion of the meeting can't be allotted to hearing citizens' concerns or questions.   Issues can also be informally discussed at public forums.  It's just not that hard to get citizens involved in government when that is the desired goal.  The thing is, that is often not the desired goal. It's so much easier to make decisions without public input. Is there anything more annoying that an engaged citizen with an opinion, or worse, a citizen that is more informed about a topic than a councilor?

A good council is one that represents all the diverse views in the community.   This is the end goal.  Weak leaders try to surround themselves with supporting voices.  Strong leaders invite different perspectives and welcome conflict.  Conflict is the engine of democracy.  If we don't have diversity of views on council then we just aren't doing this democracy thing very well. And we don't get diversity when councils work to keep it out.

Fix the meeting times, fix the sound systems,  post the agendas to Facebook, embrace conflict and welcome engaged citizens with strong opinions. Teach your constituents about democracy.  Mayors, councillors, you've got four years to bring democracy back to Nova Scotia.  Ready, set, go!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

I think we need to talk

I love a good family photo.  There's nothing like the love and bonds of a close knit family to make you smile and believe in the goodness of the world.  However, a municipal council really shouldn't look like the above photo. You see, in a municipal council we are striving for a very specific picture.  O.K.  it's true that not everyone is striving for the same picture that I am about to paint, but there's a right way and a wrong way of doing government and the right way is about openness, honesty, transparency,  accountability to the people that council serves and last, but not least - diversity.

 A community is a diverse group of people.  Let's look at Lunenburg as a case study.  Some people grew up here, some moved here from other places.  Some people are financially comfortable, and some people are struggling.  There are women and there are men.  We have a couple of visible minorities, but not enough. We have retired folks and we have young families, we have single people and married people.   In a good council, every member of the community feels like there is someone sitting on that council that understands their experience in the community and will be willing to speak on their behalf.

Good councils argue.  Yes, they are supposed to argue.  Each councilor is supposed to think independently, share their views with other councilors and when all perspectives have been discussed, there is a vote. When the representation on council truly represents the diversity of views in the community then good decisions are made that benefit the entire community.

In a small town, diversity is difficult.  Particularly when many councilors have grown up together and have strong ties outside of council.  Diversity is difficult when all the members of a council have a similar life experience.  When this happens, good argument falls by the way side. Although there will still be arguments, they will be coming from a single perspective.  That is why when we go to vote on October 15th, those of us that believe that a municipal government needs to represent the entire community and should represent diverse perspectives, need to vote accordingly.

The mayor's brother, Ronnie Bachman,  is running for council.  He is probably a very nice man and I might even like him as a councilor, but personally,  as a citizen, I do not like the idea that two representatives might choose not to disagree in order to keep peace in the family.  Because Mayor Bailey may win again, I will not vote for him.  There is probably no law preventing siblings from sitting on council together, but, in my opinion, it works in direct opposition to the concept of good governance and that is the end goal.  Or at least it should be.

 There are seven people running for council.  There will be six spots to fill out on the ballot, you should only fill out those you wish to see on council, otherwise you are upping the other people's chances of winning.

I will explain why I will vote for 4 people and I will not comment publicly on the others.

1- Brian Davis - A progressive man, a great listener, does not take criticism personally, has lived many places and brings his outside perspectives to Lunenburg.

2- Joseph Carnavale - A very kind hearted and giving man who has repeatedly advocated and fund raised for people in need.  I hope he won't mind me saying this, but I know he and his family had some financially tough times.  There are many people in Lunenburg that struggle to make ends meet.  This demographic is completely unrepresented on council and it should be.

3- Linda Blumenthal - She is a woman, obviously.  I have not yet met her, but I did talk about her with some mutual friends and the review was glowing.  What I heard was she is community minded, open, inclusive, non judgemental  and above all, listens well.

4- Peter Mosher - He served on council this past four years.  As most of you know, most councilors, including the mayor, took my battle very personally.  The perception was that they were attacked. I tried, to the best of my ability, to not make it personal, but to consistently state that council was misinterpreting a law that was well understood in Halifax and most of Canada.   When the parking changes for home based business were before council, I presented at the public meeting.  The resentment towards me was palpable.  The only councilor that looked me in the eyes as I spoke, was Peter Mosher.  I could see in his expression that he was hearing my words and weighing them intelligently and with neutrality.  He was the only one.  I have watched him in several council meetings and he has consistently shown the ability to think for himself and speak for himself.  We do not always agree, but that's hardly the point.  The point is being able to communicate.  When the response is defensiveness, as has always been the case with the mayor, communication is shut down.

These four people have my vote.  I think they would help create a more diverse council.  Someone from an unrepresented economic group,  a newcomer to Lunenburg bringing in fresh perspective, someone from an established Lunenburg family who can speak to the concerns of established Lunenburg residents and a woman with an open mind, who brings in gender diversity and her own ideas.  And of course, David Penney for mayor.

The other remaining candidates are: John McGee, Danny Croft and Ronnie Bachman

Whatever you do and however you feel, agree or disagree-vote.

Friday, September 9, 2016

"Don't be an Armchair Quarterback!"...sighh

I saw this post on The Love Lunenburg Facebook page and, for the sake of my mental health, I  had to shut down the computer.  I realize that it is not meant to be offensive, but it really is. 

In the past two years, this expression, "armchair quarterback" was thrown my way more than a few times.  It was also tossed over to anyone that shared an opinion in regards to how council was dealing with the issue of Home Based Business. Despite having gone out and done all the homework that should have been done by our councillors and staff and despite my direct communication with both municipal and provincial government, I was repeatedly discredited as being an armchair quarterback. This expression has been used to discredit anyone who has openly disagreed with council.

As I do not live in the mind of the councillor that wrote this, I can only imagine that the sentiment behind this statement is that if you want to make a difference then join government. I couldn't agree more. Except that my vision of government includes its citizens. In my understanding and vision of government, engaged citizens are embraced, supported and valued, not put down.

I apologize for taking you back to this ugly time in Lunenburg's history, but it's important.  You may recall that council excluded me from serving on the very committee that they had formed to address the very issue which I brought forward.  The following was the mayor's quote in Lighthouse Now. “She has expressed her opinion about her particular issues often, loudly, and I don’t know that she has anymore that she can add to that. So we have already heard from her in abundance,” said Mayor Rachel Bailey during a phone interview on Monday morning.   There were similar things said on the radio. 

In my understanding of healthy municipal governance these words could never be uttered by an elected representative towards one of their own constituents. In a healthy municipal government, Lunenburg council would have invited me to give the same presentation that I gave to The Nova Scotia Building Advisory Committee.  The huge provincial government invited me in.   My small, local government shut me out.  I was called an armchair quarterback. 

A healthy and progressive council understands that civic engagement is not an item to be checked off of a list.  Civic engagement is the ultimate goal.  In a community as educated, accomplished and intelligent as Lunenburg, the council should be actively seeking the input and vision of its residents. The brilliance of this community is an untapped resource.  Look around Lunenburg and you will see what I mean.  The farmers market, The Opera House, The community garden, the dog park, the walking tours, the small businesses, the artists, L.A.M.P.......all of this is the hard work of regular people in the community. When these regular people speak up regarding a municipal issue, they should not be mocked with the term, "armchair quarterback"  They should be respected and heard and brought on board.

A healthy,  progressive and broad minded council understands that meeting times are not just about the the convenience of the councillors, they are also about the convenience of the citizens that want to participate in democracy.  It should be understood that fixing a broken sound system in the council chambers is a priority because when people can not hear the discussion it is one more reason to not show up. It should be understood that if people are not attending council meetings, do not have informed opinions and are not engaged then council is not doing its job well.  It should be understood that if the current council is not diverse, and it is not, then there is a systemic problem.   Every elected council should be nurturing the next generation of leaders.  That did not happen in the last four years.  But the future is filled with possibilities.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Go Away

This past weekend, in Lunenburg, we witnessed an act of ugliness, cowardliness and stupidity. Someone spray painted the words 'Go Away' outside of dis.cord gallery.   The gallery is owned by Farley Blackman, an American entrepreneur that has invested heavily in the town. He has a passion for restoring heritage buildings and is presently most known for his magnificent restoration of The Lunenburg Opera House.
He posted this photo on Facebook and has received a lot of support from both people that have lived here their whole lives and from people that have recently chosen to live in Lunenburg. By and large, people are good and at the very least, well mannered.  Spray painting 'go away' is not well mannered and there are not many, regardless of their deeper feelings, that would condone this behaviour.  But there are many that share this sentiment.

As I watched the comments roll in on Facebook, I began to see the predictable response to any act of discrimination.  Denial.  This is not a real problem. There is no discrimination against CFAs in Lunenburg.  This must have been one rogue individual.  Some of my best friends are Jewish/Black/Gay/CFAs.   I have never experienced this problem, therefore the problem does not exist.

The problem exists and this is not one rogue individual. This is a very real undercurrent in all of Nova Scotia.  It is an undercurrent in Lunenburg.  This person that wrote these ugly words, wrote them with the support of many and is being congratulated in quiet circles of sympathetic ignorance.  Understanding, means standing under experience.   Very few newcomers to Nova Scotia have had, or will ever have Farley's experience, so very few people can relate to Farley Blackman's insistence that this is a real problem that needs to be strongly addressed by our municipal government.  I had this experience.  I understand what he is talking about. I did not understand for many years, but I do now.

When I moved to Nova Scotia, I opened my business and was welcomed with open arms by the community.  Old timers and new comers alike were nothing but kind.  Why wouldn't they be?  I make hats.  I'm a mom. My husband's a woodworker and all we wanted to do was live a quiet life.  Easy peezy lemon squeezy.  Keep your head down and do your work, no problems at all.  Pop your head up and challenge your local government.  Different story.  Come to Nova Scotia and buy a building, fix it up and live in it or run a business...No problem.  Come to Nova Scotia and buy up many properties.....  different story, different experience.  Now you are a threat to the way things have always been in Lunenburg.   So, if you are a CFA, but have never experienced any problems or if you are born and bred 7th generation and have never felt any animosity towards a newcomer, well, that's super, but now would be a good time to stop talking about your experience and start listening.... to Farley and his experience.  Because it's bloody real.  This is not the first hateful experience that has been directed at Farley.  This is just one of many.

Farley made a plea in his public statement.  You can read it at the end of this article in Lighthouse Now.  He asked that the leaders of the town take a stance on this issue.  I'm going to take you back in time a bit, so that I can suggest what this sort of leadership might look like.  As I have mentioned way too often, in 2012  I was one of three businesses featured in this wonderful promotional video for the Town of Lunenburg.  It was a successful venture.  Many people have chosen to live in Lunenburg because of this video.  It also brought a lot of happy attention and accolades my way. But sometimes silence is the loudest noise in the room.  At that point, I had had no interactions with the mayor or councillors, but it did strike me as odd that having brought a creative industry to a small town and having been featured in this video, that no one from my local government ever bothered to stop by and say hello or thanks for coming to Lunenburg or thanks for your involvement with the video.  Nothing.  Not a word. This silence got a lot louder when I was told by administration that I could not open my studio.  For one year I kept this problem to myself and felt more than a little hurt that after offering my time to promote Lunenburg , not one of my six councillors, the mayor or any administrator ever felt the need to help me. It was not malicious it was just disinterested.

So, now let's look at Farley's case. Farley took a historic building that was on its way to becoming land fill and poured millions and millions of dollars into it and has restored it to its original glory. Farley opened a wonderful gallery and out of his own pocket brings in world class, local musicians to play for free.  Farley has restored many houses and commercial buildings.  He never skimps.  Every restoration is done with the utmost of care and integrity.  Farley has provided well paid employment to a factory's worth of local contractors.   In thirteen years, Farley has never been thanked by The Town of Lunenburg for his contributions.  Not once. Think about that.

He has never been thanked because he is resented. There are people who would rather have seen the opera house fall into the sea than to watch it be restored by an outsider.  It's about pride.  Lunenburg should be owned by Lunenburgers.  This is the sentiment behind that despicable and cowardly graffiti.  It is not shared by all, it is not shared by most, but it is shared by many.  Lunenburg does have a proud and glorious past, but now is not the time for false pride.  Now is the time for humility.  Now is the time for Lunenburg to recognize that without people like Farley Blackman and every other entrepreneur that has chosen this glorious town as their own, Lunenburg would watch its most treasured heritage buildings crumble and rot.  Now is the time for The Town of Lunenburg to acknowledge that without people like Farley Blackman the economy of Lunenburg would be in peril.  Now is the time for our Municipal leaders to say, Thank you and thanks for coming.  Publicly, Loudly and in writing.  Set an example.  Show leadership.