Community ponders what to do with 2 Ross street
For the second time, a group of concerned residents gathered to discuss the Picton town hall in the Picton town hall. The community space perched above the former firehall in Picton is about to be thrown into limbo as the County waits on a decision from council about what to do with the building.
The first meeting, held by Picton councillor Lenny Epstein, was called to answer questions about the County’s proposal to open the building, now only half used, to be purchased either by a community group or a private venture.
The decision to either declare the building surplus and sell it or open it up for public tender was set to be made during a council session in July, but a strong public response to the idea of closing the town hall was enough to convince council to delay that meeting until September 19.
In the meantime, a Facebook page called Save Picton Town Hall was created, allowing residents to share ideas and information over social media.
Last Thursday, a meeting called by Picton resident Leslie Smail-Persaud was more purpose-driven. Again, Epstein was the only councillor in attendance. Smail-Persaud asked those in attendance to come with ideas about how to use the hall, and how to pay for it, if it were to be purchased by community members with the intention of keeping the building in the community.
Rebecca Sweetman had given a deputation to council this spring about turning the former firehall, now the unused downstairs portion of the town hall, into a year-round farmers’ market. She presented a plan, along with data from farmers and consumers that a central, municipally-owned market would be successful and necessary.
Sweetman also attended the meeting, elaborating on her plan. She discussed possible partnerships with groups like the Community Foundation’s vital signs groups to offer space for food workshops, or a space for small food businesses to be able to sell their products with short leases for permanent market stalls.
“Another idea that came up was to create a food co-op,” Sweetman told the group. “It would be the same kind of idea where you’d have the County’s farmer-produced products available for sale week-round. So it would be like a grocery store that is member owned and operated.”
Sweetman says such a model would require a small membership fee to shop, which would pay for someone to staff the shop.
Other attendees at the meeting discussed using the space for visual and performing arts, for workshops and to maintain the community groups currently using the space.
The group discussed funding models that would allow the community-owned building to remain viable, and began to work toward a presentation to council for the September 19 meeting.
In a report to council, staff provided a list of alternative spaces for community groups. However, all are more expensive to rent and one— the Lipson Room—was recently sold, its future as a community space uncertain.
Earlier that day, the Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee discussed the town hall, which has been a designated heritage building since 1989.
PEHAC council representative Steve Ferguson explained his interpretation of the community’s concern to the heritage group.
“The sale of [289 Picton Main Street], maybe the loss of the Lipson Room, which is one of the proposed alternate sites for these groups,” Ferguson said. “I’m all in favour of people coalescing, trying to come up with some alternative uses for the building. Let’s hear them.”
But some members favoured the sale of the building at 2 Ross Street. According to PEHAC chair Peter Lockyer, the proceeds from its sale to a private owner could go into a heritage fund, a pot that, with enough capital, could fund heritage projects on interest alone, costing taxpayers nothing.
“We’re not able to maintain all these buildings, and we have to do something,” says Lockyer. “To me, it would make sense to reduce the inventory of municipally-owned surplus properties, and those that are considered heritage, a portion or all of the proceeds could go into this fund.”
As an example, Lockyer points to Benson Hall.
“There are major efforts this year to spruce up Benson Park,” says Lockyer. “That, to me, should be considered as phase one. Because the real prize that’s sitting there on that property is Benson Hall, which is certainly one of our oldest and most historic homes.”
Lockyer suggested money from surplus heritage properties could be used to fix up the property in the park which has been sitting vacant, a situation that can cause an old building to degrade quickly.
PEHAC member Brendan O’Connor disagreed that selling the hall would be appropriate. To him, the heritage of a building that has been in public hands for so long is not just in its facade.
“It’s not just who owns it, but it’s also what it’s going to be used for and how it’s going to be accessible. If it’s used for community and public uses, then you’re not funding a heritage building, you’re funding a building that’s going to be used for public uses. How many of those buildings do we have, that are downtown?” O’Connor asked his fellow committee members. “How many buildings do we have like that, that the public can use? You sell it, turn it into condos. What good is that? You make your $500,000 or $700,000. Whatever. In two years, five years it might be worth a million. You have to think of it as community use.”