Wandering downtown on Thursday night you can get a sense that there is something different about Brantford. After years of acrimonious debates, and sometimes sheer nastiness, the downtown has a completely different feel.
Harmony Square has become a focus for civic activity that has exceeded the wildest predictions of the downtown supporters and has given the lie to the short-sighted naysayers and purveyors of doom and gloom who predicted that the square would be an expensive white elephant in a decaying core.
By my estimate, more than 700 people came downtown to watch a movie in the square. Young and old came to the square to watch jugglers and acrobats do their stuff as the giant inflatable movie screen was readied for movie night. As darkness settled on the square, the numbers only seemed to increase.
It was interesting that these were exactly the kind of people the city wanted to attract to the core. Young families with children, grandparents and even teens found reason for peaceful assembly in the square. These were the kind of people who would not be caught dead in Brantford's downtown only a few short years ago before the downtown's renaissance as a people place.
As I watched the people enjoying the movie, I recalled the acrimonious debates that the civic square generated around the council table.
It will cost too much, decried several councillors. Nobody wants to come to a decaying downtown, railed still others.
The design is wrong and Where did the extra fountain come from? were all comments that rattled around council chambers for years while the public fumed at council's seeming inability to act in the public interest.
A lot of public money has been spent on the downtown. A lot more private investment has gone into the downtown as well. That private investment would never have happened if the city had not made it possible by putting our money where their mouths were. It seemed to me that the public was far ahead of council with demands that something be done about the downtown's deteriorated state.
Yes, it was expensive, but it took a long time to get into the state that it was in and it was going to take a lot of money and time to get it back into shape. The nascent university district was the catalyst to bring people downtown. This made it economically viable, with some help from the city, to attract private investment to the core.
The downtown now has a heart to the city core that will be an asset for the next 100 years. Just looking at the happy faces that came to enjoy the programming in Harmony Square was testament to the value of what has been accomplished.
The sad part is that this almost did not occur. The arguing around the council table was often nasty and the project came very close to not happening. There were several decisions made by council that were won by a single vote.
All of this goes to the heart of what it means to be a councillor. All too often we see councillors mired in the minutiae of day-to-day government. What is often lost in all of that is a concern for the future. Where is the collective vision of council for the future? I am not talking about financial plans or specific projects but of a more comprehensive vision for the future.
The creation of Harmony Square required vision starting with former mayor Chris Friel's early support of the idea of a square through current Mayor Mike Hancock's deft handling of the project through the political reefs and shoals. A bare majority on council supported this project but it could have gone the other way as easily as not.
We need councils with vision. Perhaps the current crop can take a walk down to Harmony Square some Thursday night and see just what they have wrought despite the bickering and shortsightedness of the past three councils. I believe that they have built something that future generations will regard as one of the best features of Brantford's downtown. Let's hope those generations don't realize just how close it came to not happening at all.
The current council can learn a lot of lessons from this project as they tackle future civic needs such as the South side of Colborne Street, brownfields, and other community needs. Let's hope that a sense of the future and generations to come will guide their deliberations.
Tim Philp is a political observer who lives in Brantford. E-mail him at tphilp@befree.