Rod Johnston of North Bay has long been synonymous with the development of the waterfront and rail lands in North Bay.
The personable dentist, known for his love of bow ties and trains, began his involvement in 1994 with the miniature train and continued with the rail lands in 2000.
He has been the spokesperson for Community Waterfront Friends (CWF) for the past 12 years, but said his role as “storyteller” allows him to often “get more credit than is due.”
“I talk about other people's ideas, since they weren't always my own,” Johnston said. “I can put everyone's ideas together and tell a good story and that gets people excited about the future.”
Along with former Mayor Stan Lawlor, the pair was instrumental in bringing a miniature train to the city's waterfront area.
Along with a slew of volunteers, including retired railroaders, the ride was ready to roll a few minutes before an official 'last spike' ceremony 18 years ago.
Five years later, the first of two carousels was installed near the train. The labour-intensive project included 325 carvers and painters who created the horses. Johnston guaranteed a loan of $125,000 since the project was short of funds.
“That first summer, the carousel had taken in more than $125,000 so my loan wasn't honoured,” he said.
In 1999, the city acquired 35 acres of land from CP Rail. Johnston assumed it would be turned into a park since it ran between the downtown and the existing rail tracks adjacent to the waterfront.
“I was interested in the rail lands and could not have imagined anything else than a park. So when I read the city wanted to put out an RFP for developers to come and put in commercial buildings, I was stunned,” he said.
A meeting was convened with 24 different groups opposed to the commercial development and it was agreed that instead of complaining, an alternative plan had to be hatched.
“Six people volunteered to be part of the design group, including myself, so each of us drew on large pieces of brown paper on the floor what we thought would be a good design for those lands,” Johnston said.
The drawings were given to an architectural firm which combined them and designed the original vision.
He was soon chosen as chairperson of the new group – CWF – and committed 10 years to the project.
“I really didn't expect to stay on this long. So here it is 2012 and last year I said I would give it another 10 years,” he said.
While work is beginning on the multi-phased plan, many didn't share the vision the group had for the lands.
“At this point everyone knows what will happen but in the beginning, we had to convince everyone, even the city, that it would be a viable project and it would bring tourism, money and development,” Johnston said. “At the beginning, everyone just laughed at that. But there has been a change in the downtown and the park isn't here yet.”
A tighter community will develop in the downtown, he said, once the park starts to take shape and is completed over the years, and people will want to live in the area.
“The park will definitely change the way the downtown is,” he said. “We see that now. Everyone will have the park as their backyard and everyone will have ownership and protect it and treat it as their own.”
While the latest $6-million phase is underway, Johnston said in his mind the park is done.
“I see now we really have to design the downtown as it gets developed and not do it helter skelter with big tall buildings in the front,” he said.
Johnston arrived in the North Bay area in 1984 from his hometown of Lynn Lake, Man. While he had plans to live there forever, the closure of the mine was incentive to leave.
“We looked for a place that was nice to live in and didn't have the ups and downs of a single-industry community so we discovered North Bay,” he said.
“I just love North Bay and it has been fun to be involved in these projects. Literally, thousands of people have been involved and made them happen. How, I have no idea.
“I truly have been blessed to be involved, helped design the park and then see it come to fruition. There is a real sense of personal satisfaction, even if I have been the storyteller and many others have picked up the pieces to make it happen.”