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City axes longtime Nelson heritage adviser

In a move one critic calls a “death knell for heritage” in Nelson, the city is dispensing with its longtime design consultant.
Robert Inwood's long association with Nelson's heritage planning appears over

In a move one critic calls a “death knell for heritage” in Nelson, the city is cutting funding to its community heritage commission by more than half and dispensing with its longtime design consultant.

Robert Inwood, who has been closely associated with local heritage projects for more than 30 years, will no longer be kept on retainer, and specific consulting projects will instead be tendered competitively.

The commission, which makes recommendations to council on matters affecting downtown heritage buildings, will have its budget of $14,000 reduced by $7,500, senior city planner Dave Wahn told members Tuesday. That’s roughly equivalent to what Inwood was paid.

“Budgetary considerations necessitated we do not have a design consultant as part of the team, but some flexibility to hire as needed,” Wahn said. “We will get expertise case-by-case as applications come across our desk.”

He explained that while small projects can be awarded directly, all larger contracts must go through a competitive bidding process.

“Even if we had the money, we would have to go out to market,” he said. “[Inwood] may or may not be the successful candidate. Bob is an important player with a lot of expertise, but he’s a contractor, not an employee.”

The move didn’t sit well with the commission.

“I just find it a step backwards,” said Patricia Rogers, who has served on the volunteer group for four years. “Bob has been connected with heritage in the city since the early ‘80s.”

She worried it sounded the “death knell for heritage,” and noted the commission recently passed a motion asking the city to cut the rest of its budget but keep Inwood.

In an interview after the meeting, Rogers added: “A man with how many years of experience and we’re not prepared to use him? That doesn’t make sense. They don’t call him Mr. Heritage for nothing. He has knowledge of every building on Baker Street. That’s what we need — that’s what the city needs.”

Wahn pointed out Inwood’s contribution will continue to be felt regardless of his absence from the meetings: he is the author of the design guidelines in the official community plan, which the commission will still rely upon.

“That is not going to change. Bob’s expertise is here with us in the guidelines he established.”

The commission passed a motion asking the city to restore funding for a design consultant — although they were told they could not specifically name Inwood.

Inwood sat on the city’s first heritage advisory committee and co-ordinated the revitalization project that saw Baker Street restored to its Victorian splendour. He has been an adviser ever since, although kept a lower profile in recent years.

In an interview, he said he was surprised to learn his services were no longer required.

“Some months ago we discussed the contract. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I guess generally to carry on as we have successfully for many years,” he says. “For whatever reason, council decided to eliminate that bit of the budget used to fund my services.”

Inwood said he worked with city staff to review several dozen applications each year and fast-track signs and minor building renovations while maintaining a level of visual quality.

He was paid $1,500 quarterly — a discount rate given his lengthy relationship with Nelson.

“It didn’t seem like it was breaking the bank and typically in the past I think the mood of council and staff was they were getting good value,” he said.

“Weird things happen in politics sometimes. This isn’t the first time I’ve had a longstanding situation with a community and they very coldly, it seems, axe people out of the picture.”

Inwood, who lives in Winlaw but has property in Nelson, added he might be interested in serving on the commission as a volunteer.

“I am a building and business owner on Baker Street. That is also part of my concern. I count on a certain set of regulations, processes, and standards being in place to safeguard my investment.”

Inwood says he sent a “pretty strong letter” to Wahn, carbon copied to the mayor.

Heritage commission fate unknown

While the community heritage commission digests the news its budget has been slashed and its design consultant let go, the future of the commission itself is up in the air.

Wahn says staff has been asked to review options for restructuring the commission, but the final decision will be up to council.

He reassured members, however, that whatever recommendation comes forward “will make sure heritage has the opportunity to flourish. How that will happen, I can’t say.”

But Inwood is concerned with the city’s stance.

“They were talking about reviewing some of the commissions with an eye toward improving or streamlining them,” he says. “I don’t know how you can make them more economical because they’re essentially volunteer.”

Inwood says while the heritage commission is sometimes perceived negatively by business owners as impinging on their freedoms, its purpose is to protect the overall look of the downtown as well as the public and private money that refurbished it.

“There is a reason behind the guidelines and rules,” he says. “Nelson is not like every other community. Because it has this unique heritage, you have to adjust your thinking a bit.”

Commission member Pat Rogers concurred, calling heritage “our only sustainable industry.”

“I think heritage is in trouble. If it doesn’t have a separate voice, it’s going to be in dire straits,” she said. “You have to have a heritage and history watchdog in this community.”