Town beautification kicks into gear — at the end of August?

The first block of Second Avenue West with lovely hanging baskets and planter boxes.

In late July, we began to hear a growing chorus from readers, residents and business owners wondering about the town’s dishevelled appearance, starting with, “What happened to all the hanging baskets we used to have around town?” Apart from a couple of blocks of Memorial Avenue, one block of Second Avenue West and the block in front of Town Hall, most of the lamp standards are devoid of the lovely hanging baskets that normally attract visitors and locals to our downtown.

The second block of Second Avenue West has no hanging baskets and several dead and dying trees.

Qualicum Beach “is starting to lose its charm,” said one 30-something man who relocated here with his wife three years ago because of the town’s unique ambience. “Every time I walk through town now I feel that, in the next few months, Second Avenue will become a ghost town. I’d really like to see the town focus more on supporting these small businesses.” A telecommunications engineer who commutes online to his job in Vancouver, he worries that “suburban sprawl and focus on development is really getting out of hand,” and that he’s “saddened to see the town decline.”

The third block of Second Avenue West has no hanging baskets or planter boxes.

In 2019, several hundred hanging baskets graced our main shopping area, along with over 50 flower beds. Some business owners are wondering why their businesses no longer enjoy the benefit of the town’s horticultural efforts when they pay the same tax rate as business owners elsewhere in town. Second Avenue West is only three blocks long, but it’s the retail heart of Qualicum Beach. This year, however, there are no hanging baskets at all on two of the three blocks of Second Avenue West.

It’s not just the absence of hanging baskets

“It looks so shabby,” said a recently retired woman walking her dog, commenting on a boulevard shrub bed filled with weeds at a time when flowers are usually at peak bloom. She said she moved to QB four years ago from Winnipeg, and “used to be so proud to show off the town to her visitors, but not anymore.”

For many years, the hallmark of Qualicum Beach village has been its lovely streetscape, beautiful baskets and a well-groomed town. Now, many of its streets seem more noteworthy for the number of dead or dying trees and shrubs, and the abundance of weeds. People have noticed the proliferation of weeds, not just in Town-maintained flower and shrub beds but at some of the downtown businesses and condo properties as well. Not all thankfully, but definitely more than just one or two.

Even some of the streets are choked with weeds along the curb, resembling what one might see in a ghost town. Not only is such neglect unsightly, it can harm the road surface if left unattended. Weed seeds blow into nearby properties, spreading the mess onto people’s homes and businesses.

Particularly embarrassing has been the Friendship Garden at the main entrance to QB at Memorial Avenue and Garden Road. Until last week, it was clogged with weeds, and sported what looked like a large plucked turkey, apparently intended to be the wire frame for a floral peacock. This flower bed was finally weeded last week but, here it is September, and the bare wire outline of a bird still remains, bereft of any (flower) feathers.

Is COVID-19 to blame?

Seemingly only after concerns were raised with the Town of Qualicum Beach in late August, did the Town finally start to attend to the general decline in maintenance and beautification. It’s a far cry though from the Qualicum Beach that used to win national attention and community beautification awards.

What’s going on? Was Town management being penny-wise and pound foolish, trying to save a bit of money at the expense of QB’s image? Were the Town parks maintenance staff derelict in performing their duties? Did Town Hall just think no one would notice? Did COVID-19 cause the Town to cease all outdoor work? Are the Town and Council too preoccupied fast-tracking applications for real estate development? Or is it all of the above?

During July and August, several business owners became concerned about the declining appearance of downtown QB. On August 19, I spoke with Patrick Simpson, the owner of What’s Cooking on Second Avenue West. When told of the concerns raised by other businesses, he said he too was not happy with the absence of hanging baskets in his block.

A few days later, Simpson told me he had since spoken to the Town’s Corporate Administrator, Heather Svensen and also to Mayor Brian Wiese. According to Simpson, Svensen and the mayor explained that COVID-19 was responsible for the decline of the town’s beautification efforts. Apparently, the Town has been unable to hire students because of the pandemic shutdown, and students do all or most of the Town’s gardening work. Administrator Svensen and Mayor Wiese also said that bedding plants and shrubs for hanging baskets and planters were unavailable for purchase during the pandemic.

Simpson said that Mayor Wiese told him that the Town would distribute the existing hanging baskets amongst the remainder of Second Avenue West right away. A few days later, Town staff were observed weeding shrub beds but, as of September 1, the hanging baskets had still not been redistributed.

Questions remain about the general neglect of the town

While the Town’s belated efforts are welcomed, questions remain. If the problem was that there were no students hired because of COVID-19, how are existing Town staff now, at the end of August, somehow able to do the work of maintaining these beds, moving hanging baskets, and watering shrubs and trees? Why could the Town not have done some of this gardening maintenance work well before the neglect became so evident?

The Douglas Fir that the Town helped to save from the chainsaw decades ago.

Other examples of neglect by the Town were seen well before COVID-19, and so cannot be blamed on not hiring students in the spring of 2020. For example, why are there so many dead or dying Town-planted trees in the town’s main core, a problem that has become increasingly evident in the last few years?

It wasn’t always that way in Qualicum Beach. Patrick Simpson recalls how, several decades ago, the Town Council of the day refused to approve a builder’s development application unless the developer first agreed to save a Douglas Fir on the corner of the property where his store is located. Simpson recalls how the Town, the developer and the condo building owners worked together to ensure that the tree would not be harmed by the construction. Simpson says it was well worth the effort and cost. Today, that tree is a resplendent example of how foresight and wisdom can result in protection of our horticultural assets that, over time, contribute to an attractive and unique town atmosphere. You can admire this tall, robust Douglas Fir in front of Simpson’s store, What’s Cooking.

That’s a far cry from what has happened in QB in the last few years. Many readers will be familiar with the property at the NE corner of Fern and Primrose Street, sandwiched between the Quality Foods parking lot and the liquor store parking lot. That property, which was sold a couple years ago, had an old house and several large native trees on one corner. Apparently, no effort was made by the Town to save any of those trees. The new owner promptly razed the property, leaving a completely bare lot, surrounded by an unattractive chain link fence, which will remain in that state for… well, who knows how long?

Speaking of protecting our streetscape assets, one resident asked, “where are all our nice street banners?” These banners were widely admired for their unique and elegant depictions of life in QB. Only a few of QB’s classic banners remain in place (the ones depicting beach scenes). Gone, for example, are the banners that depicted Mt. Arrowsmith with sheep grazing in the foreground. Many of the classic banners have recently been replaced by poorly executed images that can best be described as dismal, uninspiring and strangely lacking in artistic skill. These new banners are also shoddily produced — some are printed on one side only, making them illegible on the reverse. In a town known for its wealth of talented artists, and as the home of the renowned TOSH Arts Centre, this is dispiriting and mystifying.

Finally, where is the large mural of spawning salmon that used to grace the Memorial Street side of the old Bus Garage building? Prior to the dismantling of that building, the salmon mural was moved to the side of a building in the QB Maintenance Yard off Fern Road. But the mural has since disappeared from that location too, and been moved to… ???

The Qualicum Beach that has drawn so many of us to make it our home seems to be disappearing before our eyes. In the words of Joni Mitchell:

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”