• The City of Stratford has recently put up new fencing and “No Trespassing” signs to keep people away from the decaying buildings that remain from the old GrandTrunk Railway locomotive repair shops in Stratford, Ontario on October 15, 2015. The site was once the largest railway locomotive repair shops on the continent, stretching for three long city blocks, reaching five storeys in height and encompassing 400,000 square feet. Known locally as the Cooper Site for the company that used the facility last, it has become mired in a political battle as politicians, landowners, developers, and interested heritage groups fight over its future. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

Part way through researching an article about Stratford, Ontario's three-decade struggle to find a modern use for the old railway locomotive repair shops that loom, massive and neglected, on the edge of its pretty downtown, I realized I should also look for success stories for contrast. (Find my story, “I was adored once too”, in Canadian Geographic’s April 2016 issue)

Everywhere across Canada there are examples of shuttered factories and warehouses that have been transformed into arts centres, restaurants and bars, condos, gyms, medical facilities, shopping districts, you name it.

Sure, all of these projects took years and often enormous perseverance to come up with the money, the zoning and environmental approvals and the right heritage designs. But they got done.

In Stratford, though, nothing has worked. The saga of the efforts to transform the rail shops, now nearly 110 years old and stretching for three city blocks, is one of missed opportunities, lack of will, misguided dreams and too many instances of the wrong people getting involved at the right time -- and, likely, the reverse. 

The result has been hard on the city-owned building, an unsightly mess that becomes more expensive to rehabilitate with each passing year. But the litany of failure has also been hard on the city's psyche, dividing its 32,000 residents — and city council — into distinct camps that either want the place flattened now or a renewed effort to preserve the past.

I often ran into that divisiveness while researching the story, more than once enduring finger-jabbing arguments about why the building had to come down, pronto, or why it had to become the new face of Stratford's core. One day while I was taking photos of the building, a guy in a pickup truck stopped and suggested we'd all be better off if I set the place on fire instead of snapping pictures.

Mayor Dan Mathieson, who says he hears from voters on both sides every time he ventures out of his office, told me that sometimes he wishes he'd wake up in the morning and discover the whole thing was a bad dream.

Here’s a peek into the reality.

Broken windows and an old exhaust muffler, at left, are part of the remaining details of the old buildings that once housed the GrandTrunk Railway locomotive repair shops in Stratford, Ontario on October 15, 2015. The site was once the largest railway locomotive repair shops on the continent, stretching for three long city blocks, reaching five storeys in height and encompassing 400,000 square feet. Known locally as the Cooper Site for the company that used the facility last, it has become mired in a political battle as politicians, landowners, developers, and interested heritage groups fight over its future. (Photo: Peter Power)

A city employee makes his daily check around the site of the former Grand Truck Railway Repair Shops (also known as the Cooper Site) at 350 Downie Street in Stratford, Ontario on October 27, 2015.(Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

The interior of the main locomotive repair shops on the site of the former Grand Truck Railway Repair Shops (also known as the Cooper Site) at 350 Downie Street in Stratford, Ontario on October 27, 2015.(Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

Five small houses built by the railway to house employees are still in use today next door to the former Grand Truck Railway Repair Shops at 350 Downie Street in Stratford, Ontario on October 27, 2015.(Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

Mayor Dan Mathieson, of Stratford, Ontario, atop City Hall, with Market Street, near, and the site of the former Grand Truck Railway Repair Shops (also known as the Cooper Site) at 350 Downie Street in Stratford, Ontario in the background on October 27, 2015. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

Jack Smith holds a paycheque for $.05 from 1944 that he received as a CN employee working at the Grand Truck Railway Repair Shops (also known as the Cooper Site) at 350 Downie Street in Stratford, Ontario on October 27, 2015. This is what was left after he bought some war bonds and his deductions were taken out. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

Iilona Steinacker at the site of the former Grand Truck Railway Repair Shops (also known as the Cooper Site) at 350 Downie Street in Stratford, Ontario on October 27, 2015. Ilona worked in the shops as a young woman during the war years. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

Mike Hishon, who worked at the Cooper site from the 60's to the 80's says that sometimes his car will just “take him there,” where he'll sit and look at the old buildings. He is photographed at the site of the former Grand Truck Railway Repair Shops (also known as the Cooper Site) at 350 Downie Street in Stratford, Ontario on October 27, 2015.(Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

Dean Robinson literally wrote the book on the old Grand Trunk/Cooper Site in Stratford, Ontario. Robinson is a Stratford writer and the author of more than 20 books about area history, including the definitive book on the old rail shops, Railway Stratford. He is photographed at the passenger train station in Stratford, Ontario on November 11, 2015.(Photo: Peter Power/ Canadian Geographic)