In light of the latest proposal for a Robin’s Donuts and drive-thru at the Ultramar gas bar near Trans Canada Exit 506, it may be worth reviewing the history outlined in a 13-year-old report entitled, Things Don’t Always Turn Out as Planned: Commercial Development along the Highway in Sackville, New Brunswick (1990-2002).
The report was written by Nathan Ayer in the fall of 2002 when he was enrolled in an environmental studies class overseen by Professor Brad Walters at Mount Allison University.
“I was one of eight or nine other students in that class who, for the whole fall semester, we were examining the highway commercial zone where the McDonald’s and Irving etc. are,” Ayer says during a telephone interview with Warktimes from Halifax where he is earning a PhD in environmental management at Dalhousie University.
“As a Sackville resident who had been around when a number of those developments occurred, I wanted to do a piece on the chronology of how each development that was there had come to be and see if I could find out what was happening at the time in terms of the politics and the decision-making,” Ayer adds.
Ayer’s 22-page report is based largely on news stories published by the Sackville Tribune-Post.
The stories begin in April 1990 when a company called Douglas Group Holdings, headed by Sackville resident Scott Johnson, announced plans to build a $3 million, 51-room hotel on the former Baughan’s Trucking property beside the Waterfowl Park where Home Hardware stands today.
When Sackville residents learned that the project would include an adjacent office complex and shopping mall of up to 90,000 square feet, they formed the Preserve Sackville Concerned Citizens Committee, took out a full-page newspaper ad, wrote letters opposing the development and turned out to speak against it at town council meetings.
According to Ayer’s report, members of the concerned citizens committee worried that the development would hurt tourism and local businesses.
In spite of the opposition and a recommendation against the development from the Tantramar Planning District Commission, a majority on town council consistently backed the project as a way of creating jobs and generating municipal tax revenues.
“You have to recall that at that time, they were on the verge of twinning the Trans Canada,” Ayer says, adding that plans were also underway for building the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island. “I think there was a sense there was an opportunity for Sackville to become an important point on the map for people travelling the highway,” he says with convenience stores, fast food outlets and gas bars close to the highway to attract travellers who could get back on the road quickly.
In the end, the developer abandoned his plans and the Crosswinds Hotel complex was never built, but Ayer believes town council’s decision to approve it literally paved the way for later developments — ones that make the Exit 504 entrance to Sackville look just like the congested, brightly-lit, gasoline, food and shopping alleys that dot the outskirts of so many other North American cities and towns.
In Sackville’s case, Ayer’s report shows that although the town tried to pass guidelines to preserve the natural look of the area and protect its environment, councillors softened or weakened the guidelines whenever developers objected.
Ayer says he also found that public opposition faded with time as developments such as Tim Hortons/Wendy’s received approvals in 1992-93 followed in 1994 by the Irving, McDonald’s and Esso outlets.
“I guess it just became more accepted that the town was moving in this direction and perhaps it was felt that the opposition would go unheard or not make any difference,” he says.
“That’s human nature when you stand up opposed to certain things and they happen and they become part of the town, then you maybe tend to have less energy or motivation to oppose the next one.”
Besides, he says, people get used to things that pop up gradually over time. The original proposal for a hotel complex and mall was on such a large scale and so out of character with Sackville that it naturally prompted opposition.
“Personally, when I visit Sackville now, I don’t like that highway development zone, but admittedly it has become such a normal thing to experience it that I don’t think I feel as strongly as I did 10 or 15 years ago.”
Ayer added an afterthought in an e-mail he sent Warktimes after our telephone interview:
“Thirteen years on from my undergraduate report on the highway zone, I also recognize that many Sackville residents have found employment with those businesses and made use of the services provided. Given the initial opposition to these types of developments in the highway zone in the early 1990s, it would be interesting to find out how residents view the area in the present day.”
To read Nathan Ayer’s full 2003 report click here.