Ottawa·In Depth

Storied sports field a divisive option for affordable housing site

Two and half hectares in the heart of Cornwall, Ont., are being pitched as the site of what local politicians agree is much-needed affordable housing, but the land the city has in mind is not proving a grand slam.

Historic athletic grounds cast a long shadow over proposed location

Cornwall Athletic Grounds collage art
The Cornwall Athletic Grounds, located at the corner of 4th Street E and Marlborough Street in Cornwall, Ont., have been a magnet for sports for over 100 years. Now a proposal to redevelop the land for affordable housing is stirring debate. (Cornwall Community Museum/Duk Han Lee/Simon Smith/Guy Quenneville)

Two and a half hectares in the heart of Cornwall, Ont., are being pitched as the site of what local politicians agree is much-needed affordable housing, but the land the city has in mind is proving not to be a grand slam. 

For over a century, the Cornwall Athletic Grounds have been a community hub and sporting magnet, though the site's glory days are in the past.

Once teeming with minor sports activity, the southeast corner of 4th Street E and Marlborough Street is now down to a football field, though one with natural turf cherished by users.

The other side is taken up by a concrete slab where an arena, and a nearby tennis court, once added to a vibrant mix. 

Former Bob Turner Arena site in Cornwall, Ontario, June 2023
The grounds were home to the Bob Turner Memorial Centre, a hockey arena, from 1961 to 2013. Today it's a concrete slab. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The site's total area can probably fit up to 100 housing units, according to the City of Cornwall — where people have been recently living in waterfront tents — so housing advocates are eager to get shovels in the ground.

But the city's plan, which could involve moving the football field to a sportsplex on the other side of town, is sparking concerns about reducing precious green space, providing equal access to sports — and keeping a link to the past. 

"Housing is undoubtedly needed in the city," local baseball organizer Kyle Bergeron told councillors at one of three meetings (including a town hall) discussing the plan this year. 

"Tearing down historic grounds and destroying our city's history is a poor way to do it."

Joe St. Denis football field turf in Cornwall, Ontario, June 2023
The other half of the grounds are taken up today by Joe St. Denis Park and its football field. 'Superstition' accounts for part of local Shane Turcotte's attachment to the natural turf. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

'A shame to see all that past go away'

The grounds' status as a local recreation hub predates the 20th century, long before Cornwall, located 115 kilometres southeast of Ottawa, was even a city. 

First host to lacrosse, "our grounds were the first in the [area] to install electric lighting, which greatly facilitated night games," said Don Smith, curator of the Cornwall Community Museum. 

Cornwall Lacrosse Team_1880
The centre and grounds have been home to a variety of sports including lacrosse, tennis, softball, baseball, rugby, and ice and field hockey. This photo shows an 1880 lacrosse team at the grounds. (Cornwall Community Museum)
Hockey on Athletic Grounds 1937
Residents play hockey at the grounds in 1937. (Cornwall Community Museum)

Ice and field hockey, tennis, softball, baseball and rugby came next, though the site also served over the decades as a community gathering place.

It's where, for example, residents packed the grandstand (now long gone) to mark the coronation of King George VI in 1937. Many other events followed.

ath-gnds_old-grandstand_91-15.94
Another photo from 1937 shows people gathering at the grounds in honour of the King of England's coronation. (Cornwall Community Museum)
Labour Day Parade_Satire - workers before Unions FX CR
Residents take part in a Labour Day caravan at the grounds. (Cornwall Community Museum)

The eventual arena, opened in 1961, was named the Bob Turner Memorial Centre — after a former Harlem Globetrotter who became the city's first full-time recreation director, only to die suddenly at age 35.

Local hockey players in the latter half of the century learned to skate by pushing a chair on the arena rink, which hosted the minor hockey leagued launched by Turner.  

Bob Turner
Former Harlem Globetrotter Bob Turner, far right, was Cornwall's first full-time recreation director. The arena at the grounds was named after him. (Cornwall Community Museum)
skating practice, Bob Turner Memorial Centre, Cornwall, Ontario, 1991
Kids learn to skate, some by pushing a chair, at the Bob Turner arena in 1991. (Submitted by Guy Quenneville)

Outside, there were tennis matches and baseball games, too. 

But with the arena demolished in 2013 and the modern Benson Centre sportsplex built many blocks away on the west side, activity at the grounds has dwindled to just one sport: football.

Carole Fortier's house faces the Joe St. Denis park and football field, named after a respected Cornwall recreation figure

"Oh, I'd miss it," Fortier said one recent summer night about hearing kids play. 

softball game at Cornwall Athletic Grounds, 1991
A softball game plays out on one corner of the grounds in 1991. (Submitted by Guy Quenneville)
Cornwall Ontario resident Carole Fortier June 2023
Carole Fortier's home faces the football field. 'There's nothing here in the east end. I mean, they took all the shopping stores, they're all pretty much in the west end. We've got a few, but … you wanna go to Walmart, you gotta go to the other end of town.' (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Across the street, Cornwall resident Shane Turcotte watched from the stands as his son practised in a small group.

Turcotte used to play hockey and lacrosse on those grounds too, "and it would just be a shame to see all that past go away," he said. 

The proposed housing is not a bad idea, he added. "I just feel there's other locations that could be used."

WATCH | Community members urge a look at other locations

Community members urge Cornwall to look at sites besides east end football field for affordable housing

10 months ago
Duration 0:54
Local historian Ian Bowering said moving a football field from the east end to a location past Brookdale Avenue will make the facility inaccessible for some.

'We're in a housing crisis'

The site is being eyed for affordable housing because the lands are city-owned, centrally located and served by a bus route. 

"It is inside the borders of [an] old city. If that's not a place where we should be building new housing, I don't know what is," Alex Gatien, who works as a planner (though not for the City of Cornwall), said during the lengthy town hall in June.

The current field is "a terrible park," Gatien added. "I appreciate that football fields are important, but it serves one group of users for a small portion of the year."

Public meeting at Cornwall city hall June 2023
It was standing room only at Cornwall city hall on June 5 for a town hall discussing the proposed redevelopment of the athletic grounds, although to be honest there are not that many chairs available for an audience. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Detailed housing designs are not in hand yet because the city needs councillors to declare the grounds vacant in order to get the planning ball rolling in earnest.

"We are in a housing crisis," Gatien said. "There are people living in tents."

The 50 to 100 units envisioned would only cover a fraction of the about 356 homes the city says are needed by the year 2031.

WATCH | Planner says field serves only one group

'We are in a housing crisis': Planner speaks in favour of housing project at Cornwall sports field site

10 months ago
Duration 0:56
Alex Gatien, a planner, but not for the City of Cornwall said the current field at the city-owned Cornwall Athletic Grounds is "a terrible park," but would be a suitable site for affordable housing.

'Don't envy anybody sitting around this table'

The arguments against locating the project at the grounds, and/or moving the field, go beyond just the sporting legacy.

Local historians have suggested the Bob Turner site was meant as a memorial to people who served during the Second World War, although one city councillor who grew up in the neighbourhood said he wasn't aware of that.

"We always called it the Athletic Grounds," Coun. Claude McIntosh, himself a chronicler of the city's past, said. "There was never any mention of them being sacred ground."

Some worry about eliminating a sizeable chunk of inner city green space, although the city's plan calls for retaining part of the site as a park. The exact dimensions of the park versus the housing (to be named Bob Turner Court) would be determined by city councillors. 

A map showing the proposed move of a sports field in Cornwall, Ont.
(CBC/Google Earth)

"I see the need for housing because I deal with it," said Terry Muir, a local volunteer who has called for a youth drop-in centre at the grounds.

"I also see the reality of when [green space is] gone, it's gone forever. So I don't envy anybody sitting around this table having to make this decision."

Kyle Bergeron, the local baseball organizer, has argued that moving the football field to the Benson Centre, near one of the city's "richest neighbourhoods," would make sports less accessible to lower-income kids from the east end.

"I didn't realize I lived in a rich area," McIntosh said.

Kyle Bergeron, Cornwall Ontario, May 2023
Local sports organizer Kyle Bergeron, seen at a different park in the city, said moving the athletic grounds at 4th Street E and Marlborough to a sportsplex on the west end would create an equity issue for sports players on the east end. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Whatever the demographics, moving the field after already losing the Bob Turner arena (and the Si Miller Arena, another demolished east-end facility) will have an effect, Bergeron continued. 

"There's many people who stopped playing hockey because the arenas were taken out of one part of town and moved to another," he said. 

He was one of them, Bergeron added. 

hockey game, Bob Turner Memorial Centre, 1991, Cornwall, Ontario
Players on a Cornwall Minor Hockey Association team celebrate a goal at the Bob Turner Memorial Centre in the early 1990s. (Submitted by Guy Quenneville)

Coun. Elaine MacDonald said the Benson Centre is better than the aging arenas it replaced and did not create a sports facilities gap, whereas the grounds eyed for housing are "empty, vacant land."

"It's ripe to serve community needs, all the community needs," she said. 

A site with potential, fans say

Some argue the Cornwall Athletic Grounds have untapped potential and question the estimated $3 million the city says it might cost to build a multi-sport artificial turf on land near the Benson Centre. 

Lifelong Cornwall resident Richard Marleau said the existing field at the athletic grounds, home of the Cornwall Minor Football Club, is "by far the best natural turf field in eastern Ontario."

"Council can easily build a $3-million football field in its current location. It does not need to go to a new [place]," Bergeron said. 

It's a bit of juggling act. Keep a field that's been around for so long and does have history, or do we say we're going to reinvent the whole thing?- Cornwall Coun. Claude McIntosh

As for the slab, area resident Gary Gale has suggested installing pickleball courts. 

Council faces a tough "juggling act" given "the multitude of views in the community," McIntosh said. 

"Keep a field that's been around for so long and does have history, or do we say we're going to reinvent the whole thing and create more housing and still have a park and then move on from there?"

Athletic Grounds_1953-05-19_8 City District Cadet Corp Parade_3
Cadets parade on the grounds in 1953. The Cornwall Armoury, with the circular driveway that can be seen on the bottom of this photo, still faces the grounds on the north side. (Cornwall Community Museum's Post Media Standard-Freeholder collection)

The city has contemplated moving the football field since 2009, the same year it noted the football club requested improvements to the field. 

"The condition of the field remains an ongoing challenge," according to a city report filed earlier this year.

"Staff have been hesitant to proceed with capital recreation infrastructure investments at the field, such as new overhead lighting, due to the uncertainty surrounding the future use of the property."

We don't know what's under that slab.- Cornwall Coun. Todd Bennett

The city has not compared the cost of a new Benson Centre field with the cost of reinvesting in the current field, but believes consolidating amenities, instead of spreading them out, results in "efficiencies of scale," said James Fawthrop, Cornwall's manager of recreation and facilities.

Nor has the city assessed whether any remediation work needs to be done at the Bob Turner arena site, a concern signalled by more than one councillor. 

"We don't know what's under that slab," Coun. Todd Bennett said. 

A time lapse of historical satellite images of a sports field.
Historical satellite imagery shows how the Cornwall Athletic Grounds site has changed over time. (Google Earth)

Kirby Camplin, the president of the football club, is proud of the many hours he's put into keeping the field alive.

"I'm there probably six days a week when it's not snowing," he said. 

But Camplin is prepared to see the field move to a new, better home, he said. 

former baseball fence at Joe St. Denis park and field in Cornwall, Ontario, June 2023
Today the grounds are the home of the Cornwall Minor Football Association. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The lights are probably 20 years past their "best before date," the parking needs upgrading, the kids already play winters at the Benson Cenre, and "I think people will travel everywhere by car now," Camplin said.

"I just don't believe as a taxpayer that we should spend a few million dollars at [the] Joe St. Denis [field] to make it better for football. That's not fair to the rest of the sporting community," he said. 

On the other hand, "I think our community as a whole has not done a good job historically of preserving our history," he added. 

Next steps

Before the June town hall, local historian Ian Bowering circulated a petition he now says has been signed by 500 people. It called on the city to consider other locations, including other undeveloped or "derelict" land. 

"There's lots of extra space in town," he said outside city hall. 

Later, when city staff asked councillors to declare the grounds vacant, they put off the decision to a later date.

"I'm not sure we're listening to the public," Coun. Maurice Dupelle said. 

Cornwall city hall, June 2023
Some attendees wait to enter Cornwall city hall before the June 5 town hall. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Coun. Sarah Good said there should be "a fulsome review of all the potential locations."

"It would be very unfortunate for us to ignore that opposition entirely and go ahead and approve this," she said. 

Coun. MacDonald was among those who agreed to put off a decision. But she also expressed frustration that the housing proposal keeps getting "backburnered" while discussion has focused "strictly on the sports angle."

"Surely we don't just have to concern ourselves with the games kids could play there," she said. "We have to concern ourselves with the beds they need to sleep in as well."


Guy Quenneville is a reporter based in Ottawa who grew up (and played hockey, badly) at the Bob Turner arena. Story tips about Cornwall? Send them to guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

Guy Quenneville, hockey
(Submitted by Guy Quenneville)

With files from Simon Smith and Duk Han Lee