County is open to suggestions, including sale of Picton’s town hall
The Picton Town Hall is a bit of a conundrum. Nuzzled in on Ross Street, just behind Picton Main Street and directly in the centre of the town’s core, the heritage building is a valuable asset for the County.
The building itself has two purposes. The upper level is a community gathering space. Accessible by both stairs and elevator, the large room includes an attached kitchen and washrooms, tables and chairs, and is ideal for all sorts of community activities, from bridge club afternoons to community meals, from performances to actual town halls.
One of the latter will take place on Thursday, July 20 at 7 p.m. Picton councillor Lenny Epstein has invited the public to a town hall at the town hall to discuss the future of the town hall. Five days after that, council will decide whether to accept proposals from private businesses, not-for-profit organizations and the public about what to do with the hall.
“I truly believe it’s important that we have a public assembly hall in the downtown core that’s affordable and that’s public,” says Epstein. “If all of our public spaces are being sold in Picton because you can make a million bucks here, a million bucks there, that, at the end of the day, isn’t in the long-term interest of the community. Even from a purely capitalist perspective, you never make money if you sell your real estate assets.”
Until last year, its main floor was Picton’s firehall and the County’s office for the fire chief. Then a new firehall was built in the town’s industrial park to the east, with state-of-the-art equipment and paramedics as neighbours. Fire trucks suddenly had access to wider roads with fewer pedestrians. Now the old firehall sits empty. One of the recommendations, when the new firehall builds were initially approved, was to offset capital costs by selling the old firehalls.
At a committee of council meeting at the end of June, council voted to accept a report by the County’s community development department that recommended a request for proposals (RFP) be sent out that would reveal the hall’s potential.
“The recommendation did not state that we are recommending that council sell it. I want that to be very clear,” says community development head Neil Carbone. “The report that we sent to council, which they approved, essentially said, ‘you have a building that is under-utilized, because you have an entire lower-level that’s empty, and utilization at the upper level—recognizing it is the town hall— is 30 per cent. So it’s not extremely well-utilized, but it certainly is well utilized, and it provides access to community groups at affordable rates for their events and activities, so there certainly is still value in the upper level. But as an entire building, half of it is completely unused.”
Discussion about the recommendation didn’t start until after an in-camera session about a potential buyer for the property was concluded.
Carbone says the RFP should contain a terms of reference, a chance for council to outline their goals and priorities when they invite proposals. That way, use of the space would include council’s strategic priorities and the issues it wishes to address. He adds the exercise will inform council about how much the building could bring in if it were sold, but also what ideas exist in the community that would allow them to retain the asset.
“We’re inviting creative proposals, both to purchase the building, but also for the municipality to maintain the building. We’d like to see what scenarios are out there,” says Carbone. “Are there unique proposals that would involve potentially maintaining the town hall upstairs while renting out or utilizing the lower space for some other purpose that would help to reduce some costs and would better leverage the property?”
One proposal has already come to council at a previous meeting. That’s from Rebecca Sweetman, a farmer who has brought forward the idea of running a year-round farmers’ market in the firehall that would run as a not-for-profit organization, providing a place for farmers to sell their products locally for a cost meant to cover expenses.
Although she hasn’t connected with the County Community Foundation yet, Sweetman says this addresses their Vital Signs goals to address food insecurity in the County, as well as council’s priority to assist farmers. She fears the town hall could become the County’s next brewery.
The 90-day RFP process would conclude with a report to council about the various proposals.
“If we get proposals like that, when staff reports back to council, we’re going to try to quantify the total community and economic impact of those different proposals, so it’s not as though council’s going to see a dollar figure to sell the property and then no financial impact whatsoever on a not-forprofit use while we retain the building,” says Carbone. “I want to clarify. Thirty per cent for a community facility is not necessarily that bad. For a lot of hockey arenas and community centres, larger installations, if you’re at 50 or 60 per cent full utilization, you’re doing really well, especially in a small rural facility.”
Epstein says there are ways to make the hall work better while it remains in municipal hands.
“It seems to me like there are inefficiencies that are not being addressed,” he points out. “I think the idea of opening it up for private sale in round one of explorations is premature.”
Carbone conceded that updating the operations of the building might increase usage by cutting out inefficiencies in the way the hall is rented.
“In our report to council we highlighted that a lot of the community groups are able to access the hall on a standing reservation basis at a relatively low cost. Certainly we want to maintain rates that are reasonable, that encourage community use, but we also have to be mindful of attempting to cover our costs and maximizing usage of our facilities,” says Carbone. “That would take some more staff time and dedication to that facility, maybe other community halls in order to do so… but there is an opportunity there.”
Council will decide whether to ratify the decision to open the town hall to an RFP process at a council meeting on Tuesday, July 25 at 7 p.m. Along with Epstein’s town hall, the council meeting will include an opportunity for the public to comment on the matter.