As Richard Wall sits at a table under the pavilion by the Virgil splash pad, he can look around him with pride, and understandably, a sense of accomplishment.
The president of the Virgil Business Association likes to think that what he sees is the best sports park per capita in all of Canada. “I don’t think there is a town of 20,000 or under with a better facility. If there is one out there, show me where it is,” he says.
The vision of the VBA has always been to create a multi-generational park, and he feels they are accomplishing what they set out to do. “I’m not sure if I’m supposed to apologize for this,” he says, with a nod to the skateboard park now under construction, “but our goal has always been to create more traffic to the park, not less.”
In his youth, there was one arena on the property, which was the result of a federal and provincial centennial grant and a huge community fundraising effort, one that had some naysayers from the beginning.
His father, Dave Wall, was the president of the newly-formed VBA, and of the fundraising committee.
Richard recalls his father saying there were people who thought the arena was too ambitious a project for a small town. “There was push-back from a small group of people, but the vast majority of the community was behind it, and the VBA was the driving factor.”
The fundraising committee raised $158,000 in 1967, and Dave received certificates from both levels of government for the biggest centennial project per capita in the country.
“I grew up in that era, and I love to reminisce,” says Wall.
“The mentality that got that rink done was the same mentality that has created this whole park.”
It’s the recent skateboard park controversy that started the trip down memory lane for Wall. He has stayed away from anything political, as has the VBA, which developed a strong partnership with the Town as it expanded the facilities in the Virgil Sports Park. But he wants the story told of how the first skateboard park came to be built.
He thinks it was in the mid ’90s, when a small group of kids were skateboarding in parking lots of Niagara Stone Road businesses, including the former MB Foods (now Phil’s valu-mart), the original Niagara Credit Union (where the LCBO is now), and his family’s Wall’s of Virgil Furniture Store, on the property where the Niagara Image Gallery and other businesses are now located.
The kids weren’t causing any trouble — they were good kids just looking for somewhere to skateboard. “But there was concern that either one of the kids or one of the customers would be hurt, he says.
“In true VBA fashion,” some of the members approached the Town to talk about a skateboard park, and it wasn’t long before a site was chosen, and a basic structure, only ever intended to be temporary, was built to keep skateboarders in a safe location, beside the arenas.
“Nobody knew how much it would get used, but it was a facility we thought kids could enjoy, and then, for 10 years or more, there was no more discussion about anything else.”
It was the perfect spot for it, says Wall, on the location of the former T-ball diamond, where there was no chance of bothering anyone.
But some time ago, he thinks about 2005, the VBA was approached by the Town about tearing down the original structure and building a new, relocated skateboard park. It seemed the CAO of the day wanted the site of the old skateboard park to expand the Town’s operations centre, although he doesn’t remember that was ever officially discussed, says Wall.
The VBA supported the project, but there were no costs discussed at the time. There was talk about putting it beside the tennis courts, where the pickleball courts are now, but before anything was decided, the splash pad idea came up, “and the skateboard park renewal project got pushed aside,” Wall says.
“The splash pad became a big project, with a long-term plan that included the walking trail and fitness equipment. That took us to about 2016, when the skateboard park came up for discussion again.”
At that point, the conversation included potential locations, and the cost of a pump track, with a skate park as the first stage.
As always, the VBA wanted “as good a quality project as possible,” Wall says.
One of the first sites discussed was at the back of the property where the mini-soccer fields are, but nobody wanted to give them up. The other location was “right in residents’ backyards.”
The parks and recreation department then asked if the VBA would be okay giving up what is always referred to as “the corral, which had been part of our stampede from the beginning, when we had horses and barrel-racing. At that point, we were using it for the stampede mud run, and then later for the demolition derby. We agreed it made sense for the community to have a facility it could use three seasons a year, rather than us using it for three days a year. We thought maybe we could look at other opportunities for entertainment, such as amateur events around the skateboard park.”
It seemed the best location, and the least likely to disturb bordering backyards, he says.
He emphasizes it is municipal property, and the decisions of what has occurred, such as the design, cost and location, were always Town decisions, but with support, including financial aid, from the VBA.
When he was a kid, in addition to the arena, he remembers the park had a few ball diamonds that would be used in the early evening by kids playing minor ball, and when they were finished their games, the adults would take over for slo-pitch, as they still do, except for this unusual season when the pandemic shut down organized sports.
In the intervening years, the VBA and the Town partnered on the Meridian Credit Union Arena, the picnic pavilion, the concession stand and equipment; and the splash pad, playground, path and exercise equipment, and now, $150,000 toward the skateboard park. All were designed and built by the Town, with large chunks of Town money.
Wall says the intention of the VBA was always to contribute to the multi-generational use of the park, which has grown now to attracting residents of all ages, every day of the week, all times of the day.
It was the purchase of the former Kallaur property, once peach orchards where outfielders would search for hard-hit home runs, that allowed for the expansion. It extends from the fence between the paved path and the ball diamond, to what is now Loretta Drive, and also includes the soccer fields.
When that property was still an orchard, the VBA had the vision of one day adding it to the sports park, and members approached the Kallaurs to ask for right of first refusal when they were ready to sell.
When the time came, the VBA “spearheaded the sale,” approaching the Town to talk about their vision. A significant amount of taxpayers’ money went into the purchase, along with $50,000 from the VBA.
“At the time, I remember saying to the Town, ‘if you put a subdivision here, it will come back to bite you,’” says Wall.
And yet, while some might complain about the noise, the park has become a place where a young family can come to the park, with one child playing baseball or soccer, others in the splash pad or on playground equipment, and soon, older kids enjoying the skateboard park, says Wall.
There are washrooms, two pavilions, and people of all ages using the walking path or the pickleball courts, which are now busy all day and into the evening. “The whole concept has that multi-generational feel we were looking for, a family-oriented park that is well-used. That was our mission, and I think we accomplished it.”
It there was a problem with the process that decided the location, he says, he hates to see any animosity toward the VBA.
“We didn’t make the decision. We don’t own the property. The Town was just being courteous to even ask. I know there was a lot of public input, but we had no involvement in that. We were just a supportive funder of the project, because that’s our purpose.”
He was surprised to see the concerns raised now, when the project is more than 50 per cent complete, he says.
“I don’t want the VBA to have a bad reputation for what we’ve done, to be known for having a mandate to bring troublesome teens into the park. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. We just want local teens to have a facility to skate,” says Wall.
“I was a teenager once too. We had skateboards, cheap ones, but all we did was jump curbs on Henry Street and skin our knees. The sport has evolved since then. To me, everyone in the subdivisions, whether they have kids or they’re grandparents, should be proud of what they have in their backyard, a first-class facility. I look back on being a parent, and I could never have dreamed of this when my kids were young.”