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The Park That Jack Built

By Sheila Wisdom
The Windsor Star, October 7, 2002

Jack Renner is like a dog with a bone. Once he gets an idea, he doesn't let go. Thanks to Renner, the entranceway to what will be the International Gardens is now a beautifully landscaped park instead of a vacant lot.

The trick to this story is that the transformation is at virtually no cost to the taxpayer.

Where are the International Gardens? At the old CN railway property beginning at the corner of Riverside Drive and Cameron Avenue, just facing the city's new showcase sculpture garden. Admittedly, the Gardens aren't exactly there, yet. However, they're now getting started.

This idea of a garden began a few years ago, when CN railway agreed to allow the City of Windsor to use the abandoned railway cut beside Cameron Avenue, from Riverside Drive to Elliott as an International Garden.

The plan calls for the area between Riverside and University to be a Japanese garden, honouring our twin city of Fujisawa. The land immediately south, between University and Wyandotte will be a Chinese garden.

The railway cut extends south to Elliot, with the potential for other gardens. The Canada-Japan Society undertook to develop the Fujisawa gardens as part of the overall international garden.

Over the past two years, some clean-up work was done. In 2001, with the help of a grant from Human Resources Development Canada and the loan of some equipment from the city's parks and recreation department, the Multi-Cultural Council cleaned up the area, cut the brush and installed some park benches.

In 2002, thanks to a donation from the Consul General of Japan, several Japanese flowering cherry trees were planted in the area designated for the Fujisawa Gardens.

But the entranceway, the front door to the future gardens, was a barren, unsightly vacant lot at Riverside and Cameron.

That's where things stood when Renner had an idea. Renner, a member of the Canada-Japan Society, had experienced a very successful year in his real estate business. He decided that he could give some of that back to the community and provide a kick- start for the entire International Garden.

With a considerable cash contribution from Renner, the financial generosity of area businesses, the help of a local nursery and sweat equity of the neighbourhood, the corner of Cameron and Riverside is now the park that Jack built.

Property values

The ragged corner has become a fully landscaped garden with a path winding down into the rest of the park.

What's refreshing about Renner is that he is plain spoken about his motives. He's not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes, pretending to be simply the altruistic philanthropist.

He fully admits, in fact offers up, that part of the reason he is doing this is as an investment. After all, Renner's business is real estate. If an area looks good, the price of houses goes up and so does his commission with a sale. The community benefits and so does Renner.

As a real estate agent, Renner long ago recognized the connection between beautification and property values.

Almost 20 years ago, he was part of a group who invested in the Old Town area, the far west section of downtown Windsor, between Caron and Bruce Avenue.

Owner of the Billings Block, Renner spent a considerable amount of his own money on sidewalk pavers, planters and beautification of the area around his property. However, larger plans overtook the dreams of the property owners in Old Town, as the adjacent area was designated as the site for the multi-use facility and the art gallery became the home of temporary casino.

It was difficult to market the concept of a quaint old town with the hubbub of the temporary casino and the vacant lot next door. But the beautification has helped the area maintain in the face of adversity.

Recent changes

Renner saw potential in Old Town and he sees potential in the near west side of Windsor. And when you look at it, the recent changes in the area are significant:
The elimination of the old Holiday Inn has created a continuous park that rivals many in North America, from the Ambassador Bridge heading east.
The generosity of Louis Odette has enhanced this winding riverfront park with a sculpture garden that appeals to people of all ages.
The potential of the Japanese and Chinese gardens will be unique.

The city's policy of clearing the riverfront has set the stage, as has the co-operation of CN.

And we are now in the happy situation where not one but several private donors from Jack Renner and Louis Odette to the Japanese and Chinese communities are helping to move the area to the next level.

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