M Centre should be saved, not razed: Judge

By Derek Baldwin
Local News - Friday, October 08, 2004 @ 07:00

As a member of Ontario’s highest court, Justice William J. Henderson often sat in judgment.

Now the legendary civic leader, often called the founder of Amherstview, has condemned a proposal by the City of Kingston to raze the Memorial Centre.

Henderson, 88 and retired from a long career in courtrooms and on Parliament Hill, was instrumental in securing government money 50 years ago to get the community centre built.

“In all my time in Kingston, I’ve never seen such a divisive vehicle,” Henderson told The Whig-Standard in a frank interview at his sprawling Loyalist Township estate. “My phone has never rang so much complaining about this, and from such a cross section of people. I’ve never seen the like of it.

“This isn’t a complaint in the Legions. Younger people are also fighting to save it.”

Henderson was a judge of the Supreme Court of Ontario from 1965 to 1979. He served as Kingston MP from 1949 to 1957 and is a decorated Second World War intelligence officer.

He says the idea of razing a living memorial to veterans is an affront to Kingston’s heritage.

Henderson is generally regarded as the chief architect behind the financial campaign that built what was originally called the Kingston Community Memorial Centre.

He picked up the campaign charge to build the Memorial soon after first being elected MP.

Henderson chided city councillors for contemplating the erasure of an important symbol from the city’s landscape.

It should be saved, not flattened, he said.

Henderson suggested that if council continues to push for the selloff of the Memorial Centre and its 23 acres of green space, the decision could hurt some city politicians in the next municipal election. Selling the property for $5 million was recommended by a mayor’s task force earlier this year to help raise funds to build a new multimillion-dollar riverfront spectator arena in the Inner Harbour.

Council is still weighing the idea through a steering committee.

Henderson said he is at a loss to understand why the city appears so determined to divest itself of the Memorial Centre property – it certainly can’t be for the sale proceeds, he said.

He referred to the $5 million projected sale price as “chicken feed” when stacked against the latest cost projection of $35 million to build the so-called large venue entertainment centre.

Henderson said residents of Williamsville district, where the centre is located, are calling him because “of the lack of support people of Williamsville have been given at City Hall.”

Henderson knows what it costs firsthand to pay for an arena.

He personally donated $500,000 toward the construction of the W.J. Henderson Recreation Centre in Amherstview.

Henderson said opposition to the sale of the Memorial Centre is growing.

“I can tell you there is a 95-year-old man out on the street collecting names for a petition,” he said.

More than 3,000 names have been collected on a petition started by Williamsville residents. District residents also staged a public meeting roughly a week ago that drew hundreds of angry citizens who denounced the idea of an M-Centre selloff.

“The next meeting is going to be worse for this council. It will be bigger,” he said.

The protests aren’t just coming from Williamsville. People across the city are souring on the plan, he said.

“People down and around the Cricket Field are complaining too. Yesterday, they were circulating the petitions at businesses as well.”

Henderson said he liked a recent suggestion by city staff that the Memorial property could still be the site for a sportsplex with several icepads.

An arena study completed earlier this year recommended the city should consider the Memorial Centre site for a possible four-pad arena for the community.

He argued the centre is still structurally sound and that new arenas could be added to the existing building.

Funding for the centre, Henderson reminded, originally flowed through fair board channels.

Henderson said he still vividly remembers a drought in the 1950s in the West and then minister of agriculture James Gardiner seeking support for his relief bill on Parliament Hill.

Relatively few MPs in Ontario at the time said they would support the bill, Henderson said.

In the end, Henderson was the only member of the Liberal government to back Gardiner’s bill. Henderson spent part of his childhood in Empress, Alta., so it was no surprise he voted to help stricken farmers near his old home town.

Gardiner never forgot the act.

When Henderson came calling for federal agricultural money to help support a new Memorial Centre in Kingston, Gardiner reciprocated.

“He asked me: ‘Do you have a fair board? Then I can give you $450,000 to help build something to signify the fair board,’ ” Henderson recalled.

Henderson pressed then Kingston MPP William Nickle, who asked premier Leslie Frost for matching funds.

“Frost said he will give $150,000 when the feds give their $450,000,” Henderson said.

Just when it seemed all of the money was in hand, Henderson said none of the governments would hand over their shares until red tape could be worked out with the city, which owned the land.

Henderson came up with a plan to get Ottawa to make the first move.

Henderson convinced Canada’s then governor general, Harold Alexander – with whom he served in North Africa and Italy in the military – to come to Kingston.

A pole was erected on the site of the future Memorial Centre.

Alexander posed for the cameras as he raised the flag while a backhoe from Sullivan and Sons worked in the background.

Henderson showed the photo to the Treasury Board to illustrate that federal money was still not flowing for a project that the governor general himself had just dedicated.

Treasury Board relented and the money soon flowed.

The public is invited to attend the second meeting of the riverfront arena steering committee at 7 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

The new project manager, Don Gedge, is expected to make his first presentation to the committee since being appointed last week.

As part of his presentation, Gedge may address public opposition to the sale of the Memorial Centre.

Shortly after his hiring, Gedge said he is determined to bring full public participation into the process to build a new 6,500-seat arena and entertainment centre.