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Council supports community proposal to build ‘A Hall for All’

Sarah Moran and Bev Campbell, of the Save Picton Town Hall group, address council.

Council supported citizens in their bid to keep the Picton Town Hall as a community asset during Tuesday’s council meeting which spilled over into the wee hours of the morning.

Following more than five hours of deputations, comments from the audience and discussion, Mayor Steve Ferguson implored his council to move forward to honour the community’s volunteers and not “move the goal posts”.

“Not supporting the staff recommendation sends, entirely, the wrong message to the volunteer groups we rely upon so heavily in this community – and about whose virtues, value and contributions we extol frequently. We can’t afford to discourage their participation,” he said, reminding of the success of the community-driven County Food Hub and ‘Lovesong’ housing project.

Following receipt of a staff report recommending the Save Picton Town Hall (SPTH) proposal at Committee of the Whole two weeks ago, council had supported a motion put forward by councillor Bill Roberts to seek an expedited request for proposals, hoping a public private option would surface that would assure indefinite public access.

Though both proposals received from the municipality’s ‘Request for Expressions of Interest’ process were deemed to align with current priorities n the municipality, staff favoured the SPTH bid over one by entrepreneur Michael Hymus to create a ‘pod-style’ hotel/hostel to meet a need for affordable, centralized accommodation – especially for sports tourism, business and the younger visitor market.

The SPTH plan maintains municipal ownership, operating through a board of management. The upper level would continue as a Town Hall, the lower, former fire department, renovated and operated as office, commercial and retail space.

The ‘Hall for All’ project has 18 months following the appointment of the board of management to secure necessary capital funding from lengthy grant processes. Ongoing operation is contingent on the ability to achieve full cost recovery for operation and maintenance and securing an anchor tenant. Staff will report progress to council at six month intervals.

Sarah Moran and Bev Campbell, of SPTH committee, were the first of 18 deputations – most lending support to the community bid. They outlined the project, noting extensive communication, dedication and support of more than 500 community members.

Architects Lindsay Reid and Scott Bailey were in the hall last week and reported observing the exterior was in sound condition, needing minor masonry, re-pointing and some wood repairs. Inside, they saw no mold, and noted renovations would not be as extensive as would be required by regulations if the fire hall had stayed.

Former councillor Lenny Epstein, the instigator of the first SPTH meeting last March, stated it was a poor fiscal decision to sell the building now, before giving opportunity for it to blossom under the community project.

Leslie Smail Persaud, of SPTH, stated citizens should not have to argue to keep what belongs to them and stated some people “don’t appreciate public spaces until they’re gone.”

Gilles Miramontes spoke of the history of the hall, and of those in other communities, including Trenton, where its hall had been transformed by the community.

Craig McMillan, in his deputation, also summed up the importance of volunteers the County.

“The County would not function without volunteers,” he stated, pointing to their necessary support of the Regent Theatre, Glenwood Cemetery, the hospitals, firefighters, musicians, festivals, parades, fairs and more.

“It’s people helping people. This ‘Hall for All’ has seasoned volunteers, a solid plan, asset management and budgets. Their sleeves are rolled up.”

Councillors Andreas Bolik, Brad Nieman and Roberts cast the dissenting votes.

Bolik, noting he felt like he was ‘in a creepy episode of Dragon’s Den’ said he ran for election on a platform of fiscal responsibility and his constituents told him they were in support of selling the hall.

Nieman said youth are already leaving the County, and seniors downsizing homes also can’t afford to live in the County.

The Hymus proposal saw support from five citizens who spoke up during the comments from the audience portion of council.

Noting he was “overwhelmed” hearing the passion from the community, life-long resident Herb Pliwischkies spoke in support of Hymus – noting proof of his extraordinary support of the community through the acquisition and development of numerous derelict buildings in the County and generous support of community projects.

Citizen David McKay also spoke to four hours of “passionate, articulate and worthwhile” discussion in support of the SPTH project but pressed the importance of the County paying down debt in consideration of people around the County who don’t use the hall, can’t afford to pay increasing taxes, bills and food costs, and are driving on roads that need to be fixed.

Paul Gentile suggested SPTH could issue debentures and buy the property “invest in themselves, stand behind themselves and secure Picton Town Hall”.

Hymus also pled his case – noting a past offer of $600,000 to the SPTH that had been turned down and offering to pay for a retractable wall at the arena to better accommodate groups displaced from the Town Hall. He answered council’s question about room for continued public use in his plan, noting he couldn’t support a hall that has been in use just 30 per cent of the time.

It was well after midnight when the motion to defer was defeated in favour of deciding between the two expressions of interest. County Clerk Kim White kept council on track through several amendments to motions and motions. SPTH was victorious just after 1 a.m.

The SPTH group deserves the chance, said Mayor Ferguson, noting the passion and enthusiasm in the chamber at Shire Hall over the evening was “extraordinary to watch.”

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