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Posted: July 28, 2017 at 8:52 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Residents defend Picton town hall on the cusp of a decision

In its 150-year history, the building at 2 Ross Street has been a municipal office, a town hall and a firehall. The building has even been home to the Bijou Opera House, with the upstairs venue hosting operas and vaudeville shows in the late 1800s and early 20th century including local talent and notable performers such as Groucho Marx and Fatty Arbuckle.

It has stood over farmers’ markets that have come and gone over the years.

The land was purchased by the town of Picton in 1866. The plan: build a firehouse that could also act as a community space. A year later the building was standing. It cost the town less than $5,000 to build.

Condemned because of faulty wiring, the building was closed for several years before a fire gutted it in 1923. It took another nearly $5,000, this time partly paid through insurance, to rebuild. The stage and balcony upstairs were lost.

In 1989, it was designated as a heritage building, renovated to include a floor plate and stained-glass window donated to the municipality by Steven Belanger-Taylor. Since the renovated hall opened in 1990, it continued to be used as both a community space and a firehall until the municipality of Prince Edward County built a new fire station in the town’s industrial park, about a kilometre to the east.

Today, although the hall remains regularly in use for a wide variety of community groups, the lower floor, a fire station for nearly a century and a half, now stands vacant.

Last month, a committee of council voted to open a process to sell the building or else find alternative proposals for its use that would give council an idea of the public’s interest. That decision saw a ratifying vote in a council meeting last night, after press time. A report about that meeting can be found online at wellingtontimes.ca.

The proposal prompted concerns among user groups and residents. Picton councillor Lenny Epstein held a town hall meeting at the town hall about its future on Thursday evening. About 80 people attended, and about a third of those were not residents of the town of Picton. They represented a variety of regular user groups of the hall, those with interest in improved usage of the hall and those who feel the building is an integral part of the community.

All were opposed to the town hall being sold privately.

“We’re a not-for-profit, and this is pretty much the only building in the County that we can really hold our workshops. It’s the only one we can afford at a not-for-profit price,” said PEC Chamber of Commerce’s Emily Cowan. “It is, as far as I know, the only place for a not-for-profit to afford a workshop… This is the biggest town, the biggest population, and it makes sense to have something here.”

Many user groups concurred, with a few stating outright that the alternative spaces suggested by the County are too expensive, and that without the hall, they would have to disband. These included the bridge club, Tai Chi association and Scottish Dancers.

Rebecca Sweetman, a farmer with experience in notfor- profit administration, has begun an initiative to bring a year-round farmers’ market into the firehall. Sweetman brought that idea to council in May. She invited anyone interested in forming a board of management to speak to her. It would be an option that fit the County’s criteria to allow an alternative community use.

“I feel like an amazing building like this, that’s a community centre, should have community participation in all aspects of its work, and there’s no reason why a group of us couldn’t get together and put together a proposal that would demonstrate to the County very appropriate use, week-round, so that the building is continually occupied,” says Sweetman. “It was strongly suggested to me that the board of management idea would go over really well.”

Epstein encouraged those concerned to attend Tuesday’s council meeting, and to speak during an opportunity for public comment. Some members of the group also created a Facebook page called Save Picton Town Hall, and those interested in participating can visit that page.

Although they were invited, other than Epstein, there were no representatives from either County council or staff.