BY GARY MAY
On a warm summer evening, the audience spills out from the waterside amphitheatre onto the surrounding grass. Across the canal, thousands more line the slope, while hundreds gather on nearby bridges. The performers are assembled on a floating stage, surrounded by firepots that create shimmering streams across the water. The first strains of music waft over the air.
This is Welland?
For those who thought they knew Welland, Ont., as an industrial centre with a lunch-box mentality, the canal city is the tiger that’s changed its stripes. Hard-hit by manufacturing closures and a failing market for steel fabrication, Welland had, as Mayor Damian Goulbourne tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, “nowhere to go but up.”
And up it has gone.
Until the 1970s, ship traffic on the Welland Canal was a frequent irritant to those wanting to cross the downtown core. Then, the canal bypass was constructed along the city’s eastern boundary. But what to do with the old waterway?
It took years of neglect before it was decided in the late 1990s to create a master plan to answer the question: How can the city stop hiding the old canal in its backyard, and turn it into a front-yard attraction?
Out of that question came the Welland Recreational Canal Corporation. When Stephen Fischer was hired in 2006 to head the new corporation, he quickly discovered a city council that was eager to embrace new ideas. But Fischer’s ideas soon stretched their open-mindedness to the max.
The corporation oversees 1,000 acres of water and adjacent land. Its work has acted as a catalyst for downtown revitalization, turning the old canal into a new community lifeline running through the midst of a core that now teems with activity.
As it proceeded to spruce up its dowdy downtown, Welland created the Flatwater Centre, which is co-hosting several water events in the 2015 Pan Am Games. The Rose City Seniors Centre is being expanded with an emphasis on broader issues of health and wellness. Meanwhile, the city has partnered with post-secondary education institutions, such as Brock University, and introduced new installations to the city core that bring vitality to a once-dying area.
A signature of the new attitude toward Welland’s downtown is the beautiful Welland Canal Memorial Monument in Merritt Park. Sitting close to the stunning amphitheatre, the monument is centred around a fountain, its water bubbling up through a rock formation. The fountain is surrounded by several bronze figures that represent the part multiculturalism and hard work have played in the creation of the modern city.
12 kilometres of waterway perfect for recreation
The old canal itself often bustles with activity, the 12-kilometre-long waterway frequently filled with boaters of all descriptions — including paddlers, rowers and dragon boaters.
But what about that floating stage?
Beginning in 2008, officials took revitalization to a new plateau. They obtained a $150,000 provincial grant to construct a 750-seat amphitheatre on the banks of the old canal in Merritt Park. About that time, the recreational canal corporation’s Fischer took a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, where he saw how that city had strategically placed firepots in the water. Lit up after dark, the firepots gave the impression that the water was on fire.
Fischer returned home and suggested trying the firepots on Welland’s waterfront. Then, he said, instead of placing the stage directly in front of the amphitheatre on dry land, why not experiment with a more dramatic approach: a stage that floats on the canal?
“There were a few raised eyebrows,” Fischer tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, “but they went along with it. Now, this is an incredible backdrop to any number of performances.”
That temporary floating stage proved to be so popular with performers and audiences alike, it was repeated in 2009. Then, it was decided to erect a permanent floating stage. At a cost of $150,000, the stage was erected, with the help of a local steel fabricating company that provided the girders for the roof.
Big-name performers such as Natalie MacMaster are being brought in to entertain at the magnificent waterfront amphitheatre. A special series has been added to encourage local talent to use the facility, too. Wedding parties frequently use the spot as a venue, a high school concert band performed there and seniors groups have introduced a big band series.
This year, a Franco-African Caribana-style show was introduced to the core and Goulbourne says it seems destined to become an annual affair.
The mayor says he loves to hear out-of-towners laud the community for what it has done to its downtown waterfront.
Fischer adds that many people who once lived in Welland and who return to see what has happened are effusive in their praise. “I hear people who attend one of the performances say, ‘We’re in Welland! Can you believe it? We could be anywhere in the world.’
'This is the greatest setting I've ever been in'
“I’ve heard performers come here and say ‘This is the greatest setting I’ve ever been in.’ It’s kind of a mix of Roman — with the amphitheatre — with the water. It’s a bit surreal. We have something unique here. We’re different. We’re new. We’re not the old steeltown.”
Culture has always been an important part of life in Welland, says Fischer. The addition of outdoor facilities adds a new dimension. Creating an outdoor venue increases accessibility and extends the reach of cultural and entertainment events to audiences that might not have been exposed to it before, he believes.
“You can already see the effect, in the fact that every demographic is represented in the audiences. This outdoor performance centre adds a new way of showcasing the talent we enjoy in this city.”
Certainly, a visitor to an amphitheatre performance could be excused for thinking for a moment they’ve been magically transported to Barcelona, or Vienna, or Venice: the music, the firepots illuminating the canal, boaters, appreciative audiences lining the banks. It’s a very European atmosphere, a way for the masses to enjoy culture outside of the confines of the concert hall.
Goulbourne admits the effort to revitalize the old canal and downtown has had its detractors. “Some people will always say, let’s put our money into fixing the roads. But if you only did that, you’d never spend on culture.”
So what will Welland do for an encore? Fischer says perhaps adding outdoor winter activities will come next. Ottawa celebrates its much colder winters, he points out. Maybe there’s an opportunity for a Christmas festival in Welland. “But in Ottawa, you’re born to bear the cold. It’s going to take an education here.”
Already, individuals can be seen clearing off a section of the recreational canal for skating, he says. “Perhaps we could do something like that on a more organized scale.”
And if he allows himself to dream further, Fischer says, “I’d love to have Cirque du Soleil perform here. Or maybe you could have gondolas floating among the firepots.”
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — August 2010