Money for nothing
Some councillors may want to sell, but the hall won’t fill the hole
Emotions were high last Tuesday evening as users of the Picton town hall flooded Shire Hall’s council chambers, spilling out into an adjacent boardroom where the meeting was being streamed live.
Most were out to support a group dubbed Save the Picton Town Hall, a collection of users and residents who would like to find a solution to keep the building in public hands. They were there to speak before council discussed a request for proposals that will determine the future of the municipal property.
Last year, the fire department, which had existed on the ground level of the building on 2 Ross Street for nearly a century, moved its offices to a newly built location on McDonald Drive. County staff was left looking for direction on how to proceed with a building that was now only half-utilized. Earlier this summer, a report was brought to a committee of council to open a request for proposals with either ideas on a new way to manage the property, or a bid to purchase it.
Community members using the hall gathered, rallied by Picton councillor Lenny Epstein, and organized themselves into Save the Picton Town Hall. While Epstein asked council to delay discussion on the item, the group began to determine how to approach council.
In the meantime, the Royal Hotel’s owner, Greg Sorbara, made his interest in the hall known with a letter to council. The letter stated he would be willing to allow the community some use of the space, were he to take ownership. Later in the week, Michael Hymus, who owns several County properties, including the building housing Books & Company, expressed a similar interest.
The item was delayed until last Tuesday. And the group was ready. They inundated council with the message that the building should remain in public hands.
Three deputations were registered on the agenda about the future of the hall. One was from Rebecca Sweetman, who this spring had proposed turning the former firehall into a farmers’ market. Ten members or leaders of groups that have regularly used the hall for decades made public comments, each imploring council to keep the building in public hands as the most accessible, affordable space in town.
The comment that captured both the audience and some councillors came from Rosalind Adams.
The County woman wrote a long, eloquent speech to council, expressing her concern about the effects of gentrification in the County.
“Exclusivity is what is being pursued above all in the County today, and that has real consequences for everyone,” Adams told council. “The exclusion of the working class from the wealth we create continues. I have two grown sons who work in the County in the areas the mayor mentioned: one works on a farm, the other in a restaurant. They work long hard hours creating local prosperity, and realistically, it is unlikely either one of them will ever be able to afford to buy a home here.”
Adams also related the crushing irony of Sorbara’s interest in the property. Before the hotel last closed and the property became derelict, it had once been a home for Adams when she found herself homeless. Today, she reminded council, there is no such place.
“It is with a great sense of irony and exclusion that I read the sign in front of the Royal today as it undergoes gentrification. The sign says, “We look forward to welcoming you back.” I know they don’t mean me or anyone else who ever called the Royal home,” she said. “I felt that same sense of irony and exclusion when I read a comment made by our mayor recently. He said [in an interview with Global News on September 7], ‘We have become rich and famous with our history, our heritage, our culture, our tourism.’ The mayor doesn’t mean me or anyone else who works in the low-paying jobs that actually produce the wealth in these sectors.”
Despite instructions from council’s chair to keep decorum, Adams’ speech concluded with a standing ovation from the public.
But many of those on council, including Mayor Robert Quaiff, had determined long before the meeting that the hall, operating at a deficit, should be sold to contribute to the County’s mounting infrastructure debt.
The building’s estimated value, according to the staff report, was $525,000. The cost of doing business in the County, that is, the management of roads, infrastructure and other tangible assets, totalled $373.5 million last year. In the County’s 2016 audited financial statements, the net debt was $35.8 million, up from $31 million the previous year.
The report stated, “Staff is not recommending that the property be declared surplus at this time[emphasis theirs].”
Community development head Neil Carbone elaborated. “It’s certainly not staff’s intention to say, this is the higher dollar value, and so that’s the way that you should go,” he explained.
“We know we’ve got fiscal challenges when it comes to our capital infrastructure, so I think on that front, [council is] totally right in saying we have some financial pressures and challenges, and we’re not looking to exacerbate those. But I think that’s more of a general statement than about this specific property.”
But Carbone recognizes there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The hall could be sold to alleviate infrastructure debt, but the County would lose out in other ways.
“You could reduce some debt or alleviate some borrowing cost on the long term if you had a cash infusion now. But at the same time, if you look at the other side of things, if you have a public asset that provides a benefit to the community in a host of other ways, including, for example, to numerous farmers… that would improve social situations in the community, there’s a value in that council would have to put money into directly anyway.”
Other councillors were open to something in between. Epstein said he was interested to see what could happen if the community worked with a private investor in partnership with the County. He referenced the Tett Centre in Kingston as a model.
Picton councillor Treat Hull offered as a potential solution that the municipality use a commercial condominium ownership style to sell the bottom half the property and maintain the top, with both the municipality and the second owner contributing the maintenance costs as they arise. He expressed concern with lending County resources to a farmers’ market.
“We’ve made some progress on farmers’ markets and very limited progress on the most fundamental social challenge facing the community: affordable housing,” he remarked.
Councillors Steve Ferguson and Jim Dunlop were impressed by the group, and both expressed the importance in ensuring that volunteer and community groups in the County not be discouraged by such a move.
“I’m in favour of getting all the options, but I won’t vote for changing the volunteerism at the town hall,” said Dunlop. “When we had the issue of the firehall, we thought, ‘well, that one’s easy, we’ll have one new hall and three old ones. But we forgot that the town hall is on top of the Picton one. And so we weren’t really aware of the negative effect of that… at least for the people that live here, I think we need to preserve the history of that.”
Epstein and Ferguson presented a motion to remove the phrase ‘listed for potential sale’ from the motion, along with creating a six-month deadline. That was defeated.
So too, seemed the constituents after the three-hour meeting. They left frustrated and upset, feeling as though their pleas to council had been ignored. But they haven’t given up. On Sunday, the group met at the town hall yet again to discuss a strategy going forward.
Last night, after this paper went to press, Lynne Rochon came before council representing the town hall folk. She took another approach at council, describing what the hall could look like under community management rather than appealing to keep the building public.
She asked council to reconsider the item, providing a deadline that would allow for enough time to prepare such a plan.