I had a chance to visit Base31 in Picton, Ontario in August for a short visit and knew I had to go back for a longer one. The history in this place is fascinating. The innovation using “creative placemaking” to bring it back to life is extraordinary! I sent them an email to see if I could get a tour and learn a little more about the site itself and the interesting concept they are using to bring it back to life. A wonderful lady by the name of Daniela Kelloway who is Head of Marketing and Communications contacted me and invited me down for a visit. Come along on my Chipmunk Adventure at Base31. This is cool!
Germany had invaded Poland in 1939 to which Britain and France responded declaring war on Germany. In 1940 the Canadian goverment built “No 31” to operate as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training plan. The Bombing and Gunnery school was commanded by the British Royal Air Force. There are 36 buildings representing former barracks, mess halls and administration buildings as well as 6 very large airplane hangers sitting on a 70 acre site. There is approximately 700 acres in total with an airstrip and an aerodrome.
Five bombing ranges were built for these young men to practice their war time skills. Planes such as the Avro Anson, Fairey Battle and the Bristol Bolingbroke were flown here. Thousands of young men moved through here between 1940 until the end of the war in 1945. It was interesting to walk the grounds and see the pictures of those young men on the walls of the buildings bringing me back to that time. It is interesting to note that the pictures with a story attached to them are from actual families of the men and women who worked on the Base as well as served in the Airforce. Some of the pictures are taken from the archives.
I loved the sign for the “Station Dance”. Held at the Drill Hall which is pretty ironic since they hold concerts in there now. The band then, Matt Kenney and his Western Gentlemen. Tickets were available for Service Personel and Ladies for only 50 cents. Does not seem like a lot but in those days servicemen were paid approximately 85 cents a day. Almost whole days pay to go out and play.
After the war the RCAF (Royal Canadian Airforce) took over the base and renamed it Camp Picton. They would use the base as a training facility for anti-aircraft artillery until 1962. Then it would change hands again to the First Battalion of the Canadian Guards and again it was renamed as Canadian Airforce Base Picton.
In 1969 it left the hands of the military and was decommissioned. Sold to the former Mayor of Picton, H. J. McFarland who had dreams of making it into an industrial park. Honouring his Scottish heritage he changed the name to Loch-Sloy Business Park.
In 1999 it changed hands again, under the management of Jacqui Burley who I am told was instrumental in preserving many of the sites buildings and also making them usable for industrial and commercial spaces.
Here Comes the Magic
In 2021 PEC Community Partners Inc aquirered the site. I was fascinated to learn how this company would revitalize the site with the new without losing the old. My tour started with a sit down chat with the CEO, Tim Jones. From the moment we shook hands I could tell this gentleman is a visionary, a creator, an outside the box thinker. He indeed has a history of being a leader in innovative change-maker through ats and culture. It was interesting to learn that PEC Community Partners Inc did not come in with a pre-determined plan. They did not want to tear it down but to build it up. The word community is a meaningful word in their name. Collaborating with over 100 community members including businesses, community development members, arts and heritage leaders, among others to breathe new life into this historically significant site. Their idea to incorporate retail, industrial, arts and culture to come together to create a unique experience of new and old through creating partnerships within community is a “canvas for creative energy”. I could not wait to explore.
Let’s go on Tour
As you drive in the building on the right is the administration building. Base31 offices are inside this building which was once the drunk tank. A jail type door leads you into a series of small rooms where the soldiers that had a little to much fun could sober up before going back to work on the Base.
I loved the Visitor’s booth. It was so bright and colourful with the promise of adventure on the otherside. Here you can get information on events as well as a site map to help navigate the grounds.
Across the road is the Artisian building. Inside, an art gallery as well as a meeting place. The art that is hung on the outside is all done by commissioned artists. Some of the art is by seasoned professionals and some are from those artists who are just starting out. The gardens are a wonderful place to hold small festivals or gatherings. What a beautiful building and space to grow.
Some of the buildings have been rejuvenated and are occupied by tenants such as Kelly Cade Yoga Studio, Maison Depoivre Art Gallery, Trevor Jay Designs as well as several property maintaince companies. From Transport companies to a dental office they have it all here. Hungry? The Shway Shway Mama Cafe, the only Shawarma Food truck in town can help you ease that hunger pain. The diversity is amazing. There truly is something for everyone and they are just getting started.
As we walked the Base it was fun to see the mixture of old and rejuvenated. This is a huge project and with any large project it takes time. As Daniela said “One building at a time”. Mixing Retail, Commercial and Industrial it gives a very inclusive energy.
All through the Base are large cubes giving both historical information as well as the evolution of what it is becoming. It was interesting to read about the different buildings such as the Sergeant Mess Hall, the Lecture Hall as well as the Drill Hall.
All of these buildings are available for anyone to rent to hold events. Whether it be a concert in the Drill Hall, a wedding in the Sergeant Mess Hall or a conference in the Lecture Hall, the surroundings would most certainly make it an interesting event.
The immense size of some of these buildings are, well just darn impressive. The Drill Hall where in the past they would do military drills, as well use it as a exercise gymnasium and even a dance hall. Today it is used as a concert venue. In August when I was there I just missed David Wilcox. Darn! I love David Wilcox. The building has large double doors at the back to walk out to a patio as you listen to your favorite band. Seeing a concert here would be awesome. The sound, with the acoustics in that building would make it magical.
There are six airplane hangers. I thought the Drill Hall was big! These are twice the size. Some of them did have an airplane in them. They are also rented out for boat storage as well as industrial use.
When I did my drive around tour in August, as I was driving past the airport hanger I thought I could hear a small airplane. No, it must have just my imagination as I immersed myself in the great history of this Airforce base. I was kind of relieved to see a real airplane taking off along the airstrip behind the hangers. A cute little yellow plane that I later learned was the air cadets.
The Aerodrome is a private airstrip that is used by the PEC Flying Club, The Department of National Defense Air Cadets Program as well as people with small planes can land there. They must seek prior permission to land but that is just an email away.
What a beautiful historical site to tour. Mix that with the innovation of the revitalization that is being done by the team of creators at Base 31 and the fact the the whole community is actively involved in restoring this important moment in Canadian history makes it that much more enjoyable. I encourage everyone to make Base31 a star on their travel destination itinerary!
I cannot wait to return next year to see how it has blossomed. To experience the new an exciting exhibits and businesses that have decided to make Base 31 their home. This time I will check out their event page before I pick a date to visit, so I don’t, just miss, a great concert.
Thanks for coming along on my Chipmunk Adventure. See you next time.