Ever since Scarborough lost its city status 18 years ago, there have been community attempts to bring change to the district. Residents say there has been much talk, much planning but not much improvement. The area's negative image stubbornly remains.

But residents say a new community organization formed this week to rejuvenate Scarborough looks promising.

Five Rotary Clubs of Scarborough launched the Scarborough Community Renewal Organization (SCRO) Tuesday night out of a campaign that the service clubs started about two years ago. 

Scarborough Community Renewal Organization

Rotary Club members and politicians, including Coun. Chin Lee at far right, listen to speakers at the inaugural meeting of the Scarborough Community Renewal Organization. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

The new organization has an ambitious list of goals, including attracting head offices to the district on Toronto's easternmost edge. The Rotary Clubs formed the organization, appointed an interim board and committee chairs, and handed it over to the community.

"The Rotary Clubs have given us a gift and that's to make Scarborough a better place to work, play and live," Jennifer McKelvie, interim chair of the organization, told the crowd.

"Everyone here believes Scarborough deserves better."

At its inaugural meeting at the Scarboro Golf and Country Club, which drew close to 150 people, the organization asked volunteers to sign up for eight newly formed committees.

They are: social development, economic growth; arts, culture, tourism and sports; health promotion and seniors; suburban planning; natural environment: administrative and planning; and communications.

Dave Hardy

Dave Hardy, an urban planner and principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, a Toronto-based consulting firm, says Scarborough is a vibrant community, undeserving of its negative image. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

Dave Hardy, an urban planner and principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, a Toronto-based socio-economic and community planning consulting firm, outlined economic and social challenges facing Scarborough.

"Things are not going the way they should be in this community," he said.

Economic problems facing Scarborough include: employment areas are being converted into non-employment areas; the district is not attracting higher paid office jobs; and its economy is becoming a retail one.

For example, from 2002 to 2012, the city of Toronto as a whole gained more than 68,000 jobs, while Scarborough itself lost more than 1,700 jobs, he said.

A Rotary Clubs of Scarborough discussion paper on economic development says Scarborough was amalgamated with Toronto on Jan. 1, 1998, but: "...of all the amalgamated municipalities, Scarborough has fared the most poorly."

Joy Robertson

Joy Robertson, executive director of Scarborough Residents Unite, a neighbourhood association, said residents are frustrated because change has been slow but the new community organization could do good things for Scarborough. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

Another discussion paper on social development says: "Wealth is centred in the core areas of the city. Incomes for the affluent have risen and property value increases have resulted in huge increases in net worth for many core area families. In contrast, there has been a decline in middle-income households in the suburbs and poverty has moved to the edges of the city."

A Scarborough Business Association was formed last fall, Hardy said, with the aim of building prosperity.

Hardy said the 5 Rotary Clubs of Scarborough did research to "get our facts straight" on Scarborough's problems.They also drew up reports and came up with 14 recommendations. 

These include rebranding Scarborough, creating a hub for music, arts and culture, urging renewal of Scarborough Hospital facilities, promoting use of Scarborough green space, and hosting a conference on "New Suburbanism" in Scarborough.

Hardy, who grew up and raised his family in Scarborough, told the meeting: "While we were amalgamated, we were never assimiliated. And we are really tired of the condescending remarks we are receiving."

Philestena McLeod

Philestena McLeod, a mental health worker in Scarborough, says the new community organization has the "right focus." (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

Rebranding, he said in an interview before the meeting, is needed because of the way Scarborough has been perceived. Its image, he said, doesn't reflect reality.

"People don't understand what Scarborough is all about. It's a vibrant community," he said.

Hardy told the meeting that the organization will be separate from the Rotary Clubs but: "We will underpin everything until you don't need us anymore."

Hardy said the campaign was based on "Benefits Blueprint," a community planning process in Saint John, N.B. funded by government and Irving Oil Ltd. to ensure all parts of the city would benefit from major capital projects.

After a question from the audience, Hardy acknowledged that a "number of efforts" have been made in the past to improve Scarborough. "Things are happening but maybe not as fast as everybody wants."

Scarborough Community Renewal Organization

An audience member asks a question at the inaugural meeting of the Scarborough Community Renewal Organization. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

Joy Robertson, a Scarborough resident and executive director of Scarborough Residents Unite Neighbourhood Association, said the organization is a good start.

"I'm pleased it's being pulled together. There's been a lot of planning and a lot of talking. We haven't seen as much progress as we should be seeing. It's important for residents to see action."

Philestena McLeod, a Scarborough resident and mental health worker, raised the issue of youth mental health at the meeting and asked whether the organization would look at that issue. She was told that the health promotion committee would.

Later, she said the organization has the "right focus."

John Stapleton, a Scarborough resident and Ontario social policy expert, said Scarborough has acquired nicknames over the years - including Scarberia and Scarlem - that he said are really the result of discrimination. "It's the downtown biases." 

Stapleton said the organization shows promise because: "It's marshalling all of the resources in Scarborough in the hopes of getting some traction. It's been a long time coming."

Positive attributes 'overshadowed'

Coun. Chin Lee said it's important for Scarborough residents to stand up for the district, promote it and to stay informed with developments in other areas of Toronto.

"The 14 recommendations have been formed and we all need to work on it," Lee said.

Jamille Clarke-Darshanand, a social policy analyst and member of the interim board, said she thinks the organization could give Scarborough "the momentum" it needs to speak up for itself. For too long, its positive attributes have been "overshadowed" by Toronto.

"We need to focus on the great things we have here, not just diversity of people but diversity of places. Focusing on the positive aspects will help to overcome the stigma associated with Scarborough."