Brantford expands amid protest

Wilfrid Laurier University’s main campus in Waterloo has seen exponential growth each year of the past decade as the number of students attending Laurier has more than doubled. According to university administrators, who highlight the possibilities afforded by the satellite campus that Laurier opened forty minutes to the south in 1999, this kind of growth cannot physically continue in Waterloo.

The target for growth has shifted to the Brantford campus, which has seen a great deal of recent development to prepare for the sort of rapid increase in student numbers that the Waterloo campus has experienced and can no longer support.

“The longer-term plan is to not grow [in Waterloo], we think we’re at a good size,” registrar Ray Darling explained. “Eventually Brantford might grow to the same size as Waterloo’s campus.”

In fact, by 2014, Brantford is expected to double in size to over 4,000 students, according to Darling. “We need to get some good, solid programs in place there if we’re going to expand there in the next five years.”

“We’d like to add residence space, we need dining hall facilities, we absolutely need recreation facilities and athletic space,” noted Laurier president Max Blouw regarding Brantford. “We should be in good shape to grow the campus in Brantford to 4500 or 5000 students with the current developments that are underway.”

Brantford, which had been hit hard by industrial decline, welcomed the establishment of Laurier Brantford among the derelict buildings of its downtown.

“Laurier has revitalized [the area] with the students coming in, and has been the prime thing to drive the city and drive the downtown,” Brantford city councilor Mark Littell said. He pointed to development by the university currently underway totalling nearly $60 million.

Set to open in September is the first wing of the $40 million Brantford Research and Academic Centre, which will house a bookstore and classrooms. The university has also renovated the former CIBC building to create space for a future business program to be offered on the campus. As well, a former strip club is currently being gutted in order to house more classroom space and faculty offices.

As such large-scale development of the area takes place, a substantial group of people continues to protest the demolition of buildings that could possibly make way for the campus athletic facility.

Forty-one buildings along Colborne St., some pre-dating Canada’s confederation, had been slated for demolition for some time and were expropriated by the city for that purpose a year ago. Though there is no official commitment by the university at this time to build on the site, it seems to be a likely candidate for the new athletic complex, and has been discussed as a possibility by administration and city council.

“Discussion has taken place but no agreement has been made,” said Laurier Brantford principal acting VP Lesley Cooper about the facility being built on the site. “I think it is more than just implied.” She added, “All of this will be a decision by the council, it is their land.”

Approximately half a million dollars in funding is in place for the planning stages alone of the shared athletic facility that Laurier would construct in partnership with the YMCA, Nipissing University and Mohawk College. The project received over $250,000 from a federal government development program and some of the $1 million donation to Laurier Brantford from the SC Johnson Company will also aid in planning the construction of the facility.

“We will be hiring an architect, [the funding] was to do some preliminary community consultation around the athletics centre,” Cooper said. “It’s very preliminary but it’s where we’re at.”

Erich Davies is one of those opposed to the demolition that got underway along Colborne in mid-June. According to Davies and others, the heritage value of the buildings has been overlooked by the city council.

“Nobody is considering the heritage,” he said. “You can’t replace this stuff once you’ve destroyed it the way it’s being destroyed.”

The movement to save the buildings has been fuelled in large part by groups on Facebook that fought against the demolition before it actually began several weeks ago. Some Laurier Brantford faculty members were involved in the movement as well.

“There’s so much good stuff on that street,” Davies continued, “the kind of stuff that cities all over North America are trying to replicate because they’ve already destroyed it.”

Blouw explained that he doesn’t comment on the Colborne St. situation, but said, “I think it’s very clear that Laurier has demonstrated a very high adherence to heritage values.”

“It’s not our decision, we need to be separate from that decision,” he said about the demolition and re-development process.

Blouw added that funding the actual construction of the facility is another issue altogether and that it is possible to build it elsewhere. “There are possibly other sites downtown but we need to take guidance on what’s available relative to when we secure the funding.”

Laurier will continue to expand its Brantford operations in the coming years as it is forced to shift its focus away from simply the Waterloo campus, including the possibility of another satellite campus in Milton. Planning for development in the next decade was done on the premise that Laurier Waterloo will not exceed 15,000 students.

While the development of an athletic complex is considered essential in light of Laurier Brantford’s growth, how, where and when the facility will be built all remain questions. The public response to its potential location is another thing.

While demolition is already underway, Davies remained determined. “This advocacy is going to continue,” he said. “We’re going to need to rebuild what’s been lost.”