Historical societies plan fund to revive tar ponds neighbourhoods

By Tom Ayers
Cape Breton Post
Thurs., July 19, 2007

SYDNEY - Two local historical societies are working on a plan to create a revolving heritage fund that could be used to generate economic activity and revive neighbourhoods adjacent to the tar ponds.

"We’re now moving from the conceptual framework . . . to a business planning process," said Tom Urbaniak, chair of a steering committee struck by the Old Sydney Society and the Whitney Pier Historical Society.

Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University, said community revolving heritage funds have been used successfully in the United States to refurbish older homes in urban neighbourhoods suffering from neglect.

A proposed fund for Sydney is still in the initial stages, but the steering committee is optimistic the idea can take hold here and could be a pilot project unique in Canada.

"The process of setting up a revolving fund could take up to a year," Urbaniak said. "We’re cautiously optimistic that this could be not only a dynamic heritage project, but indeed a community economic development project."

Simply put, a revolving heritage fund is created with a relatively small amount of seed capital that is used to purchase and renovate a house or building. The building is then leased to a community group or sold, and the proceeds are used to renovate another building.

Urbaniak said U.S. studies show renovations tend to have a greater impact on the local economy because a greater proportion of the money is spent on local labour rather than materials that are often sourced outside the community.

According to a conceptual overview presented to Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s heritage advisory committee earlier this month, housing prices in neighbourhoods adjacent to the tar ponds are expected to rise as the area’s environmental cleanup progresses.

The cleanup could lead to demolition of some of the properties that have considerable historical and social significance, such as the Kolonia section of Whitney Pier that contains distinctive company houses built next to the former steel plant.

The steering committee is now exploring options to find possible sources of seed capital and models of governance and structure for a board of trustees that would operate the fund.

"We’re very satisfied with the conceptual framework report, but there still is that detailed business planning that has to be done," said Urbaniak. "We are very concerned that it be sustainable, and that’s what makes revolving funds so exciting. You wouldn’t have to have a $500,000 capital campaign every year."

Urbaniak said the only other revolving heritage fund that may be in the works in Canada is in Vancouver.

"They may beat us to it, but we don’t mind," he said. "The more, the merrier."