Gerry Kowalchuk wants the quaint, historic Old Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake to leave a lasting impression on visitors, and after doing some research on similar towns around the world, decided the best way to accomplish that is to create an impressive focal point for people to see as they arrive.
He wants that to be his gift to the town he and his wife have come to love.
His goal became to create a “striking” entrance on Queen Street, a rejuvenation of the gateway to the Old Town, he says. He envisions a “symbolic representation” that will complement and enhance the town’s image with “landscaping excellence which reflects innovation and creativity.”
Other than that, he says he has no idea of what it should or will look like — that is a job for experts. He is also clear “there is nothing wrong with what is there,” but believes the important site could be improved with the help of a landscape architect firm.
Kowalchuk, who moved to NOTL a little more than a decade ago, says he is grateful for how his life has unfolded. As a way of paying forward to help others, in 2014, he set up a family fund with the Niagara Community Foundation. In explaining his philanthropic endeavours through the foundation, he says he learned a strong work ethic and frugality from his parents, and through his early experiences, the value of “connecting with people,” all of which led to a variety of opportunities that culminated in a career as an investment advisor, from which he is now retired.
The fund, which he manages with one of his daughters, was created to help people in need achieve their goals, but Kowalchuk says he began some time ago to think long and hard about a donation he could bequeath to the town in his will. He initially envisioned it being spent on a community project after he was gone, but then decided he’d like to see it happen while he’s still alive, and can be involved in the project.
His first step, in the fall of 2019, was to ask Lord Mayor Betty Disero to stop by for a chat at his Rye Street home, where he briefly outlined his idea for a rejuvenation of the existing entrance to the Old Town, making it clear he was offering $250,000 to fund the project.
Disero set up a meeting with some town staff, and the project moved forward, following a suggestion that Kowalchuk make a presentation to the town’s Communities in Bloom committee, which he did, in December.
In January, 2020, councillors agreed with a CIB committee recommendation in favour of the project, to be financed by the Gerald Kowalchuk Family Fund. They also approved the formation of the Queen/Mississauga Project, a CIB subcommittee, to create terms of reference and a work plan for the site.
That committee, which is now close to recommending the hiring of a landscape architect firm, includes two councillors, John Wiens and Wendy Cheropita; CIB representatives Janet Trogden and Janice Johnston; and residents Alex Topps and Bill Clark.
Kevin Turcotte, the town director of operations, and J.B. Hopkins, parks supervisor, have been included in committee discussions and have been very helpful, says Kowalchuk.
After several meetings between last January and March, it became clear the most important task was identifying qualified landscape architect firms and determine how to move forward with gathering expressions of interest in the project, says Kowalchuk. Having Topps, a retired member of a landscape architect firm, on the committee, proved to be helpful.
When COVID struck in March, committee meetings were cancelled, and only resumed in October by video conference calls. Since then, significant progress has been made despite the pandemic, he says.
After narrowing their search down to three firms, and interviewing them, they expect to make a choice at their Jan. 5 committee meeting, based in part on the work samples each has submitted.
“Seeing their work product has given me a handle on their capabilities,” he says.
He hopes they will have approval from council soon after, and after awarding the contract, could see work begin on a design in February.
Each firm that has submitted a bid has committed to doing a number of conceptual drawings, three at minimum, should they be hired. From there, says Kowalchuk, he has confirmed the committee can look at all the elements in the drawings and if necessary, can choose which elements they would like to see incorporated in a final design.
“I think we will have a lot of possibilities, and with the help of Kevin and J.B., we, as a committee, will make a decision.”
A second bid will go out, likely next spring, for a construction company to carry out the work, which will be overseen by the landscape architect firm as contract administrator, says Kowalchuk.
The tentative timeline he has set out has construction beginning next September, after the end of the 2021 tourist season, with planting to follow in the spring of 2022, and completion by June, in time for the next influx of tourists.
Although it’s a long way off from completion, he says, it’s best to take the time to get it right, and he’s “proud to be the donor of this project.”