A community/aquatic centre for St. Thomas: ‘If you want to play, how much are you going to pay?’


city_scope_logo-cmykThere is no approved site on which to begin construction. The wish list of options is rather lengthy. And, as for the cost, we’ll let Mayor Joe Preston opine on that rather important consideration.
Of course, we’re talking about a possible community and aquatic centre now being studied by a technical committee struck to “create a physical concept plan and determine the location for a new community and aquatic centre in order to be prepared for future funding opportunities.
A report from the committee was presented to city council at its final meeting of the year on Dec. 20.
Members unanimously approved moving forward with the next exploratory stage which includes reviewing financial partnerships with surrounding county municipalities, reviewing potential operating partnership opportunities and retaining a consultant to determine a Class C cost estimate for such a facility.
City manager Wendell Graves ball-parked consulting fees at $10-$15,000.

That unanimity was tempered somewhat through the concerns and questions raised by several council members.
Not to mention the air of confusion related to the road down which the city might be headed.
Coun. Joan Rymal got the ball rolling with what exactly is the city approaching neighbouring municipalities with and for what purpose?
“Do we need to have a more defined plan? Or do we feel what’s included in the report is enough?
Community and acquatic centre survey 2

Coun. Rymal continued, “Do we need to have some sort of time frame? Thirty-five million dollars is a lot of money for the capital cost. And I’m not sure, $1.1 million to me seems a bit on the low side for the annual operating expenses.”
Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sands attempted to steer council in the right direction by noting dialogue with our neighbours is to ensure “this would be the only aquatic centre and community centre in the entire Elgin county.”

“I don’t see any reason why we would go out at this time to friends and neighbours to talk about partnerships and plans until we have done some more work in-house.”

It didn’t assuage the concerns of Coun. Gary Clarke.
“I’m not sure what we’re asking our friends and neighbours to be looking at.”
Coun. Clarke moved on to the expense and features to be included in the facility.
“The project is $35 million with a $1.1 million annual fee to administer it,” he pointed out.
“When I look at the components that are there, people are asking for a walking track and we already have a walking track in St. Thomas.”
That would be the popular track at the Joe Thornton Community Centre.

“The ability to pay for this, to me, is almost a luxury when we look at the number of things we just looked at in the budget. We have pages and pages with millions of dollars in infrastructure deficits. They’re not going to get done if we devote this amount of money to this project at this time.”

He continued, “People are asking for another building for the library and we had offered Memorial (Arena) at one time and it wasn’t feasible in the library’s budget.
“They’re asking for a therapy pool as well as another pool. They’re asking for an exercise room. To me, we need to refine and define what we actually want.
“I don’t see any reason why we would go out at this time to friends and neighbours to talk about partnerships and plans until we have done some more work in-house.”
Definitely on a roll, Coun. Clarke took a deeper dive into finances.
“We need to do some work ourselves to find out through the finance department what we can afford and when we can afford it.
“We need to look at how much our budget would have to grow in terms of tax revenue.
“The ability to pay for this, to me, is almost a luxury when we look at the number of things we just looked at in the budget. We have pages and pages with millions of dollars in infrastructure deficits. They’re not going to get done if we devote this amount of money to this project at this time.
“We really need to sit down and look at whether we’re out three years from now or five years from now and what we really want in this project.
“I think going forward with this motion is premature.”
Coun. Steve Peters was all for moving forward, however with a significant caveat.
“We’re not making a commitment,” he reminded. “But we need to do our due diligence and fact-finding as a council, based on the report the committee has presented to us.”

“The user groups that are going to use this facility really need to be prepared to go out and fundraise and come to the table to help us meet the capital costs.”

Coun. Peters conceded, however, “Coun. Clarke does raise a number of good points.
“Is there a way to work with the private sector to potentially lead to some redevelopment in our downtown core on sites that we don’t own?”
And, what about discussions with the Thames Valley District School Board?
“We know that the school board has been looking for a number of years at a new high school site. Is there a partnership available with the school board?”
Coun. Peters offered direction for whichever consultant is brought in.
“I would really like to see the consultant focus in on the fundraising aspect of this going forward.”
He followed that with one of the key takeaways from the discussion.
“I think a really important component is going to be if you want to play, how much are you going to pay?
“The user groups that are going to use this facility really need to be prepared to go out and fundraise and come to the table to help us meet the capital costs.”
Coun. Jim Herbert pointed out, “If you’re talking $35 million today, in two years you’re talking $40 million.”
That nicely opened the door for the second significant takeaway from the evening, this time from Mayor Joe Preston.

“This is a look at a future project and whether we can afford what would be our piece of it but to also be ready for when other levels of government might talk to us. This is a very expensive, debt-ridden project and it would be great to have everything.”

“Because of our debt ratio, for a number of years anyway, there is no way we can do this all on our own.
“Everybody keeps banting about $35 million, I would maybe suggest it may be twice that.”
A price tag of $50-70 million is quite a dose of reality.
As to defining what exactly will be contained in this centre, Coun. Clarke suggested shouldn’t that be buttoned down before engaging neighbouring municipalities?
“We need to focus a lot more on what do we really want in this building? There are still other ways of accomplishing those amenities. Whether it’s an addition on the seniors centre because it makes more sense to put an exercise room there because you’ve already got a parking lot.
“Or whether with the library there’s an opportunity to use another city-owned facility or do they go to a mall?
“Everybody wants everything and we can’t afford that.”
Coun. Steve Wookey, a member of the technical committee along with Coun. Baldwin-Sands, reminded members, “There are many, many variables. What we are proposing is a rational next step.”
Mayor Preston closed out the discussion with this bit of clarity.
“This is a look at a future project and whether we can afford what would be our piece of it but to also be ready for when other levels of government might talk to us.
“This is a very expensive, debt-ridden project and it would be great to have everything.
“Let’s all play our role as council in sharing that this has to have a bunch of checkmarks going forward . . . At what point are we taking on too much debt?”
As part of the motion, staff will present findings to council by May of this year.

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Will sticker shock dampen the enthusiasm for a community/aquatic centre?

PUTTING PEOPLE AND THE CITY ON THE RIGHT PATH

He’s always upbeat as evidenced through this observation about the past year.
“I think the mayor would have had a better smiley face if it wasn’t for COVID for two years in a row.”
The mayor in question, of course, is St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston and we had a lengthy discussion with him over the holidays in which to reflect on the year past and what 2022 might have in store for the city.
“When you look at everything that’s happened in St. Thomas, in any other year, you’d go, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good.’
Mayor Joe Preston“If you dropped off the pandemic, we accomplished a great deal in our community this year, including growth and more jobs and commercial building and residential building, there was a lot going on that would have been thought of as great big news in any other year.”
Preston is quick to add, “I’m quite proud of what council has been able to do.”
Just take a look at the number of Help Wanted signs around the city, suggested Preston.
“It’s a pretty good indicator of how collectively as a city we’re doing.”
Without a doubt, the focus in the past couple of years has been social housing.
“It shouldn’t stand out as much as it has this year,” noted Preston, “because we should be doing this every year.”
Highlights in this area include the opening of the Railway City Lofts above the transit centre, a new home downtown for Inn Out of the Cold and most recently, construction is underway on Phase two of the community and social services hub on Queen Street.
He stressed that is why housing is in the city’s strategic plan for the coming years.
“And continue our conversations with private developers and other builders for them to help us with about a thousand housing units a year for the next 10 years.

“We said housing is a job of the municipality. It is ours to do, and it’s ours to find ways to do it. So we said, where do we start?”

“And we’ll be working as well on affordability.”
We can’t continue doing what the city has done in the past, cautioned Preston.
“We went a decade without building any multi-unit rental apartments. And that just compounds why is this not affordable?  I’ll tell you why it’s not affordable because there is no supply. So people can charge exactly what they want. That’s not good for us. That certainly did not help those looking to find a place.
“We said housing is a job of the municipality. It is ours to do, and it’s ours to find ways to do it. So we said, where do we start?”
That strategic plan was crafted less than a year ago, and Preston reminds, “We reported back to council (in December) that we’re at 65 per cent in one year.
“And there are still two years left in this plan. So we had a bit of a chuckle. I think we’re going to have to sit here and write some more.”

“And I feel with this council, I’ve been blessed with the eight people there. Look, I’ve got spare mayors if I need them. A lot of experience. So let’s use what we have.”

The key is not having strategic plans sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
“We promised ourselves we’ll review it every two months and we’ll see where we’re at.
“And we took the report in last week on the community centre and aquatic centre, the first report in so that we could be ready should another level of government offer the finances to help us do such a project.”
Preston concedes such a facility is realistically two or three years down the road.
He points to the Bostwick Community Centre in south London (total cost $55 million) where the YMCA contributed $9 million and pays the majority of operating costs.
“It is an incredible combination of private sector and public sector. Three levels of government and the YMCA.
“You know, in the past year council might have said, ‘We know how to do it.’
“No way. We’re not, we’re not experts in that. We shouldn’t pretend we are.
“I think I made it part of a statement sometime in the last couple of years, when did we stop listening to experts?
Preston again referenced council as a whole.
“And I feel with this council, I’ve been blessed with the eight people there. Look, I’ve got spare mayors if I need them. A lot of experience. So let’s use what we have.”
Preston also noted the contribution of city staff and in particular that of city manager Wendell Graves who retires early in the new year and spearheaded the social housing movement.
“And I’m really looking forward to Sandra coming on and being able to do the same thing.”
That being new city manager Sandra Datars-Bere who signs on Jan. 10.

“In some cities, you see towering cranes on the skyline and you go look at the progress happening while St. Thomas isn’t that tall, but where we see scaffolding downtown, that’s also progress.”

With the imminent opening of the emergency shelter downtown on Princess Avenue, what becomes of the Mickleborough Building that has been a temporary daytime drop-in shelter?
“I certainly suggest it needs to be housing,” advised Preston.
“One floor of something and two floors of housing. We’ll just have to put all of our expert heads together and say, here’s the cost, how do we do it?”
As for the downtown core, Preston made note of the following.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve really started to count. There are about eight new businesses downtown.
“I’m surprised because if you went to an economics class, they’d probably say the middle of a pandemic may not be a great time to open a business.
“But, if you see an opening, you go for it. It’s good to see that downtown St. Thomas is filling in fairly quickly.”
That includes renovations to the former Tony’s Huddle and the scaffolding is soon to be removed from the Talbot Street residential/commercial block in the city’s west end.
“In some cities, you see towering cranes on the skyline and you go look at the progress happening while St. Thomas isn’t that tall, but where we see scaffolding downtown, that’s also progress.”
That includes the much-needed repairs to city hall, a true landmark.

“So please come to the shelter and we’ll put you on the right path to permanent housing and perhaps better addiction management and certainly mental health management.”

Of course, we couldn’t close out the conversation without stopping to dwell on the homeless situation in the city.
“What we have,” suggested Preston, “is a group of homeless individuals who don’t always want what we’re offering.
“We can’t put them in leg irons and bring them into the shelter. And it’s always going to be that way.
“We’re putting teams in place to convince some to come to the shelter.
“Even if it takes some of our great community volunteers to buddy up with the people at the shelter, so they get a comfortable one or two nights to see what it’s like, that may make the difference. We’ll try everything to do it.
“I don’t want anyone sleeping on park benches.”
As for endorsing a tent city for these individuals who shun an emergency shelter – as has been the case in numerous municipalities – Preston said that just defeats the purpose.
“I’m not going to build a second shelter because they won’t go to the first.
“So please come to the shelter and we’ll put you on the right path to permanent housing and perhaps better addiction management and certainly mental health management.”
One last question, what about the former Wellington Street Public School that was quickly transformed into an isolation centre just before Christmas?
“I’ve had a few people in the last week or so say, ‘Why don’t we convert it to a residential property?’
“Because it just really isn’t made to be one and it will take pretty extensive renovations, but yes, it’s a piece of property, the city owns.
“You know, we have a potential lease coming up on it but it isn’t imminent.”
So there’s one to watch as we turn over the page on the calendar.

IN QUOTING OTHERS, WE CITE OURSELVES

On this first day of a new and – we can only hope – promising year, this quote from American journalist Bill Vaughan comes to mind.
“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”
A long-standing tradition in this corner was to close out the year with a review of events from the past 365 days through notable quotes from members of council, other politicians or members of the community.
We parted ways with that humorous send-off several years ago and perhaps it’s a light-hearted flashback worth reviving in 2022.
With what we’ve been through the past two years, a heaping dose of humour perhaps is in order.
In closing out the old year, we leave you with these words of wisdom from English poet Edith Lovejoy Pierce.
“We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.”
Our wish for faithful readers is 2022 brings you health, an abundance of happiness and we see the return of collective tolerance in our lives.

THE ECHO CHAMBER

The proposed aquatic/community centre item from last week generated plenty of feedback and we’ll start with a couple of Tweets from Ken G.

“If volleyball & basketball are added together (they should as they both require the same space: a gym), they total 1345 votes. That makes including a gym 3rd in ranked needs. If >1 gym is built, we can host tournaments which bring in $ to the community.”

He followed that with an additional observation.

“And if pickleball, volleyball and basketball are added together (they all use indoor gym space) that is 1969 votes for a gym. Easily #1 in the ranking of community needs.

Susan Gerry points to the facility in Tillsonburg.

“On the other hand, this complex could work hand in hand with the senior center, as well as provide another option for the arts. Tillsonburg has a wonderful complex with swimming, hockey, rec/multi-use common areas and arts.”

Michaela Sandering says it’s another example of investing in St. Thomas.

“It’s an investment into our future as a growing city. People moving here from other municipalities have already had access to infrastructure like that. And with all the extra tax money being generated by the newly built houses and the overpriced real estate sold we should be able to finance it.”

Deb Hardy is hesitant about the price tag as were several members of council at last Monday’s meeting.

“Sounds like a huge undertaking, both in looking for the location and in finding the funding. As a taxpayer who likely would not use the centre, I’m a bit worried about the price tag. But at the same time, I realize it’s a need and will not be any cheaper in years to come.”

Dawn Docker cuts right to the chase.

“Remove the items that are available at the Senior Centre or the Thornton Arena and build the Aquatic Centre, no need for duplicates.”

Susan Gerry responds to the above with the following.

“True, but to have these amenities in one place will ensure everyone in the family can have a fun day. Maybe we can eliminate some of the indoor sports since the Thornton center has a gym.
“Let’s hope they have a bus stop there too.”

Leith Coghlin says it’s simply a case of addressing a problem that doesn’t exist.

“There is a litany of examples in this province over the past decade of dozens of municipalities that embarked on aquatic/rec centres that were poorly thought through and then development went completely awry. “Smarter municipalities often rely on developers to contribute with cash, lands in kind, or services-in-kind like them building it. In almost all instances where collaboration of that sort occurs, all dropped incorporating a pool for the hundreds of thousands in annual maintenance costs…, most in the form of insane liability insurance. “St. Thomas has already spent an absurd sum back 4 years ago on ‘fields’ for games. In a fiscal crisis and the pandemic showing no signs of abating, this should be the lowest item on the city’s to-do list.
“Want a pool? You have three choices in St. T: the Jaycee Pool, the YMCA, or the outdoor at Dalewood Conservation Area.
“Need a gym? Thornton or rent one from the four high schools in town for a pittance.
“This is a proposal to solve a problem that does not exist.”

And a couple of out-of-town readers checked in with local experiences, starting with Linda Whetham

“Woodstock has done a wonderful job with their parks, arenas, pools, and seniors centre, and hospital, However, you can go sulk in one of the nice parks as the taxes are quite high here.”

Ellen Smith checks in from the Cambridge area.

“We tried all this with Craig (former mayor Doug Craig who served from 2000 to 2018) – got nowhere.
“Bunch of useless on council. Sportsplex should have already been in, using it, on Hespeler Rd. – Central to Cambridge, with support from businesses, but was a waste of energy & time from us trying to get it done.
“Our city is shameful when it comes to a sports complex. Thought the new mayor had more sense – but not. Just a bunch of want-to-be’s.
“Could have been all paid for by now & well-used & proud of.
“Shameful!!”

And Robin emailed us with this food for thought.

“The per cent of people not using available pools in the city is due to cost of memberships or single-use entry. People are basically saying they would use a lap pool if it was free to use – which I doubt is how such a facility would be run.”

Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope

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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.

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