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Opinion: In support of proposed Beeton Heritage Conservation District

April 2, 2021   ·   0 Comments

By Richard Lex

In the spring of 2003 an interesting journey began for Collingwood’s downtown.

The Collingwood Downtown Heritage Conservation District had just come into existence with a unanimous vote by Council. This decision would lead my wife’s and my work and our passion for almost two decades as property owners in a heritage district.

Who could have known some 18 years ago – except perhaps the handful of advocates and Councillors involved – what a positive and far-reaching effect the conservation district would have on the downtown. Around the same time, we purchased a beautiful but derelict commercial heritage building in the center of the downtown.

The newness of this town-wide initiative brought home the significance to us when we were issued the town’s first-ever heritage permit – for the facade restoration of our recent purchase. It’s from this perspective, along with several other heritage restoration projects we have completed since, that I’d like to examine what the district has meant to the Collingwood downtown, the property owners, the residents and the many visitors who come every year.

There is no question that in the early 2000s the town realized that it was beginning the long transition from a manufacturing community to a tourist and lifestyle destination. With the beginnings of Blue Mountain Village, the community recognized it’s greatest asset was not the nearby ski hills, which lie in the Town of Blue Mountains, but rather the beautiful historic downtown that dates to the late 1800s.

The 1980s and ’90s had seen a rash of demolitions as well as a general deterioration of many downtown facades and community leaders looked to a district designation as a way to turn that around.

Born with a great deal of consensus among property owners and residents, the district rules would go on to guide downtown development in a positive way, preserving a number of threatened historic buildings and generally guiding appropriate infill.

The sad loss of the Admiral Collingwood School building was the notable exception.

In Collingwood, we have seen that more and more purchasers of downtown properties are attracted by and embrace the district guidelines, knowing that it will help to protect their investment in the historic town. People have also begun to realize that heritage properties, if they are maintained in an authentic manner, bring substantial premiums in the real estate market and are sought after by the growing market of investors and new residents to the area.

Our own experience has shown that artists and other creatives are attracted to the ambiance uniquely found in historical buildings. Businesses, and local organizations, including our BIA, recognize the conservation district as a tremendous marketing opportunity to help attract visitors to the downtown.  Along the way, the myths that heritage properties are difficult or expensive to insure or that it creates a burden of red tape for property owners have been dispelled.

A successful district, of course, requires knowledgeable town staff, particularly in the building and planning department. Our own experience has been very positive as minor heritage permits are processed quickly and without charge while major heritage permits go through a similar process as one would expect with any building permit.

As with other heritage districts, Collingwood has offered a number of incentive programs.

The Heritage Grant Program provides up to $3,000 yearly in matching funds for restoration projects. This includes costs of exterior painting, replacing windows, repairs to historical features of the building. Another popular incentive is the Heritage Property Tax Rebate Program, which rebates 10% of annual property taxes.

Town Council is currently studying increases, as many of these types of programs in Ontario provide up to a 40% property tax rebate for eligible property owners. A Major Restoration Tax Incentive is also offered for projects exceeding $200,000.

These programs and the premium nature of heritage properties have, in fact, encouraged an increasing number of heritage property owners, outside the district, to apply to the Heritage Committee for designation status. Along with that, the Heritage Committee is looking at options to establish a second district in Collingwood. A true indication of the success of this project both in terms of implementation and public acceptance.

More and more of Ontario’s beautiful neighbourhoods and main streets are reaching out for heritage district status, with the count most recently at 134 districts. Local citizens are recognizing the importance of preserving their communities’ rich architecture; not only for business or tourist reasons but also as a celebration of cultural heritage. Whether its a streetscape of 1800s shopfronts or stately Queen Anne Revival homes or the taverns, hotels and halls where our ancestors gathered: all of these are rare gems that together form our collective memory.

Kudos to those communities, such as Beeton, that are looking to the future by recognizing the value of their past.

Richard Lex is the past chair of the Collingwood branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.  Along with his wife Anke, they have restored a number of historical buildings in the Collingwood Heritage District including the Tremont House, an 1889 former hotel and now arts building.


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