Council Wants to Give Away Our Parkland to Strangers

COuncil doesn't listen to the public
On July 29, 2020, Councillor Jeffrey (the Queen of the Unlimited Expense Account), seconded by Councillor Hamelin made a motion to give away a very large piece of Harbourview Park to a group that few if any had heard of before that date. GIVE AWAY OUR PUBLIC WATERFRONT PROPERTY! There was no public consultation, residents were not asked whether we felt handing our parkland to an out-of-town organization was a good idea, but council approved the motion unanimously.*

Council agreed to turn over a vast area of public green space to an outside organization so they could build a two-storey, 20,000 sq. ft building called the “Awen Center,” plus pave a section for a massive, asphalt-covered, environmentally hostile parking lot. The planned location was east of the area where the unwanted splash pad is being constructed (see map, below). The CAO provided details in her report, CAO2020-08 Ethnic Mosaic Alliance Multicultural Centre. And yes, this is still within the area that was a former landfill, as I reported previously, and no environmental assessment seems to have been done on the property despite being a former dump!

Site Plan for Awen Centre

As local resident, John Megarry, wrote to me recently,

I don’t remember seeing any discussion of changes to the Waterfront Master Plan [WMP] that would permit this usage. CAO Skinner in her 10 May 2021 presentation says that the WMP “notionally” (whatever that means), shows the Awen Centre as being accepted in the WMP. In fact, I attended many of the Brooks McIlroy public consultation sessions and Council discussions that led to the WMP, and I can attest that no-one asked for an indigenous gathering place.

However, along the way that got inserted into the WMP, I guess by Director Collver, and lo and behold the very first thing that was done for the WMP was the Gathering Place – the one thing nobody asked for, and, so far, as far as I know, the only thing accomplished towards the WMP! Now this Awen Centre seems to have been slid in with little or no public discussion that I’m aware of. And then Council proposes to morph this already questionable building into an even larger project, potentially used by a larger community than just Collingwood, again, with little or no opportunity for public input.

But, it seems, no one on council asked how this unplanned and un-asked-for addition to the waterfront master plan (WMP) that no one agreed to, got there, or why the town should be giving away precious, public parkland on the waterfront to this out-of-town group. I can’t even find a good rationale why staff or council thought Collingwood would be the prime site for such a facility.

(I recall there was a municipal policy and bylaw that requires all town facilities and roads to be named after local people who have contributed to Collingwood or participated in local organizations that contributed to the community… there was a list of names compiled by town staff of historical figures from which to draw, and I’m pretty sure there was no Awen on it, yet here’s the third municipal facility or place to acquire that name…)

The Ethnic Mosaic Alliance is self-described on its own website as “a not-for-profit organization created by ethnocultural leaders in Simcoe County to celebrate our diversity.” But when you try to get info on the “EMA Team” you get redirected back to a graphic asking for your contact details with no information about who’s behind the group. I can’t find a list of their accomplishments or successful projects to date. That’s uncomfortably uninformative to me.

Nor is there any information on the EMA website about how the group is funded (or if it has any funds), if it has paid staff, what its charitable status and government-assigned number is, who is on the board of directors, financial statements, supporters, endorsements… it’s very mysterious. It says it was “created by ethnocultural leaders in Simcoe County to celebrate our diversity” but won’t tell us who those leaders are, or what they do in the organization. Its mission is simply but vaguely stated as “We enrich our community by embracing, promoting, and celebrating cultural diversity in Simcoe County for all people” without providing even basic details about what “enrich” means, how they intend to accomplish this, or pay for it.

On another site, I found a Barrie phone number listed with a Gmail address for the group, but no physical address, and only one contact: a realtor from Barrie identified as the group’s chair. Another site finally told me that “Ethnic Mosaic Alliance (Corporation# 11283537) is a federal corporation entity registered with Corporations Canada. The incorporation date is March 5, 2019.” That led me to a third site that provided a list of directors (none from Collingwood or even the west side of the county) and a registered address in Midhurst, which, from Google Earth’s view, appears to be a private home in a subdivision.

I can find no evidence that anyone in this group, let alone its board of directors, made a public presentation to council or that anyone on council even asked for one. How did they approach the town, and who did they speak to?

I can find nothing on the EMA website about the directors to suggest they have any history in planning, fundraising, construction, organizing, operating a facility, or even other charitable work. And yet our council was eager to give away our waterfront public parkland worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe worth millions!) without the sort of basic information you should expect from any organization asking for support. Has the term “due diligence” gone out of fashion at council?

There will never be ANY more waterfront parkland in Collingwood, yet this council seems determined to turn it into parking lots and give large parcels of it away to an unknown, outside organization. What in hell were they thinking? Or were they even thinking at all?

The EMA  sent their business plan to the town; staff reviewed it, and summarized it in the CAO’s report, including:

• Early estimated costing is up to $9 million.
• Once built, the EMA would be responsible for the oversight and operation of the centre. The intention is to provide hub services, supports, and multicultural celebrations that meet immigrants’ needs. These may include settlement services, English language training, foreign language training (for children and youth), employment services, and programming for children and seniors.
• Revenues to support operating costs will come from lease agreements, membership fees for Ethnic cultural associations, programming fees, space rentals, and grants, given the shortage of rental spaces for target user groups.
• The Centre has been costed to and will be designed to stand out, embracing light, a tapestry of colours, finishes such as wood and glass, flowing spaces with transitional and innovative “barriers/walls” would allow the freedom and flexibility to host a multitude of events – in a welcoming and inclusive, and multicultural educative environment.

This is a large, expensive project and as councillor, I would have expected to see some significant financial detail to indicate it was viable and that the proposed revenues could cover the operating costs (there’s no indication of even a single commitment to lease space at this site, let alone commitments to operating those services). How many people will be employed? How much weekly or monthly revenue is required to keep it operating? Who will pay for snow removal? Services? Maintenance? Property taxes? Garbage pickup? Custodial, phone, internet, and other expenses? Who designed it and where are the design plans?

Where is the money for the rather high building costs ($9 million!) coming from? What evidence is there that the town won’t end up having to cover some or even all of those costs later if the group cannot get funding?

The business plan was not attached to the CAO’s report, nor is there any indication that anyone on council asked to see and read it, much less asked to have it reviewed by an auditor to be sure it was viable and the town would not end up with a liability in such an undertaking. It was all la-dee-dah for council.

The CAO’s report noted:

From a land perspective, there are a range of possibilities open to Council, such as but not limited to the Awen’ Gathering Place area mentioned above, a private donation, or purchasing a suitable location as the Town’s contribution to an arts and culture initiative.

Yet I can find nothing to indicate any other option for land was pursued, such as searching for a private donor. Did council even consider looking for alternatives? (Yes, that SHOULD be “is a range of possibilities…” but does anyone proofread these reports?).

How much would it cost taxpayers to purchase a “suitable location” and where would that be? Was the Rotary Club — which has already put so much planning and effort into developing an arts and culture centre for Collingwood — consulted or asked to participate in this venture? Apparently not: engaging our community in issues that involve it has long been anathema for this council.

The report also notes (emphasis added):

There are many criteria that would likely be rated highly in Collingwood, such as gifted land, municipal engagement, adjacent parkland and visibility of location.

Did anyone ask what “municipal engagement” entailed? Does it mean funding and resources? If so, at what cost to the taxpayers? What is the town expected to provide for that ‘engagement?” Why is “adjacent parkland” a requirement and what would future uses of that parkland entail? If visibility is a requirement, why is a location hidden behind strip malls, fast food joints, and near a wastewater treatment plant being offered?

Why wasn’t the public consulted before the promise to give away public land? And why weren’t the local media all over this and asking these questions?

A piece in the Toronto Star from June noted, without giving more than minimal information (it appears to simply regurgitate a media release):

The group is fundraising by collecting used laptops and computers, then refurbishing and reselling them. A Bollywood Extravaganza event is also being planned at the drive-in later this summer.

I cannot imagine how this will raise $9 million or more to build their proposed 20,000-sq-ft facility. Why would council even consider donating land before ANY group had raised the money for construction? How many refurbished computers are they required to sell to raise $9 million?

(A BarrieToday story from 2019 says it’s 22,000 sq. ft. that will include “a large gymnasium with a stage that can be used to accommodate large multicultural events and performances, an office administration space, meeting rooms/classrooms, a kitchen, storage spaces for ethno- cultural associations, washrooms, a foyer, and a music room. The intention is to provide hub services, supports, and multicultural celebrations that meet immigrants’ needs. These may include settlement services, English language training, foreign language training (for children and youth), employment services, and programming for children and seniors.”).

I don’t question whether EMA is a legitimate organization or that their goals are worthwhile, but the lack of information about them would have made me, had I still be on council, very reluctant to commit public assets and property to their cause until a fuller disclosure of such information, including their sources of funding, was available. It is council’s job to look after our community’s assets, not give them away on a whim. 

And I would NEVER offer any public property without including in the motion a caveat that if accepted, it could never be sold or transferred to another individual or organization but would have to revert to the town if unused, abandoned,or unwanted in the future. Apparently, our lawyers and the real estate agent on council never thought about the complexities of land acquisition or transfer when approving the motion. But then thinking was never this council’s strong suit.

A multicultural centre could be a local asset, sure, but why not locate it on a site where it would not destroy rare public greenspace and waterfront parkland? Megarry suggests somewhere on Poplar Sideroad. Why not put it in the municipal parking lot behind town hall, so it would benefit the downtown as well? Or on the town-owned land behind the YMCA (the Y sits on town property and plays no taxes and only $1 a year in its lease)? Why not put it at Fisher Field?

Why didn’t council and staff approach local cultural groups to determine what people in THIS community need and could benefit from? Why let outsiders dictate those uses? Do we even have a list of local groups and associations to contact? Did any local association commit to leasing space in this facility? Did they even know it was planned? Or did council merely bull through its political china-shop as usual without thinking through all the consequences and implications?

And, again: why wasn’t the public consulted and local cultural groups engaged before an out-of-town group was promised land and support?

Megarry questioned the increased traffic from a centre that was intended to be “used by all of the South Georgian Bay Region” but I see nothing in the CAO’s report to indicate a traffic analysis had been done or even considered, let alone a road upgrade for the poorly-maintained section adjacent to the park. Or anything about a servicing analysis (aren’t we in a water “crisis”?), or an EA on the former landfill site where it would sit (recall the last one done, in the 1990s, found methane gas when the soil was disturbed). Or anything to suggest serious planning rather than flaccid warm-and-fuzzy thinking behind this.

Fortunately, this won’t happen here right away, if ever. At around 2:50:00 of the June 28 2021 meeting of council, PRC director Dean Collver gave an update on the proposal. noting that the EMA now wanted commitments (the slide shown around 2:53:30) of at least 2 acres of free land already zoned, commitments to allow for future expansion on the site, commitments for in-kind support from the municipality (at what cost?), and a ten-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) that gives the EMA first refusal on other developments in the donated land.

But I did not see a commitment from the EMA to cover any costs the municipality incurred in going ahead, should the EMA decide on another location. or in fact anything that the group committed to providing in exchange for the gift.

Apparently, from what I hear in Collver’s comments, the ongoing destruction of the park for the unwanted splash pad and its egregiously environmentally-hostile parking lot on the former dump site will cause problems for the EMA’s latest demands, making the proposed facility unsuitable for the park. He said the town still wants to “support EMA” but not necessarily there. What that support will be or cost taxpayers, he did not say, but he admitted staff were “on a path” to that support. 

So the town “stepped aside” from the promise of free land (Brian won’t be able to crow about it on his campaign to be MPP). But the town will be involved at some undisclosed cost in other ways that, apparently, still don’t involve consulting with the public.

The real issue here is how this ever got so far without a single public meeting to get local opinions, local ideas, involve local associations, or have any sort of public engagement. How did the WMP get so screwed up and changed, with a splash pad, meeting place and then have THIS facility stuck into it, without any public consultation? Where was the leadership from the mayor — a real estate lawyer who should know about these things — to engage the public FIRST before promising to give away public waterfront property?

And why weren’t the local media asking the tough questions of local politicians when all this was first raised? What a dog’s breakfast. The community should be outraged.

Collingwood deserves better.

~~~~~

* Here’s the motion from the minutes:

6.4. CAO2020-08 Ethnic Mosaic Alliance Call for Interest in a Multicultural Centre RES-254-2020 Moved by Councillor Jeffery Seconded by Councillor Hamlin.

WHEREAS Collingwood’s Vision and Community-based Strategic Plan set out an inclusive multi-generational artful community that recognizes and celebrates Collingwood’s growing ethnic diversity; and
WHEREAS the Waterfront Master Plan as updated through the concepts for the Awen’ Gathering Place notionally suggests a proposal for an Awen’ Centre to provide further cultural context to the Gathering Place site;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council receive report CAO2020-08 Ethnic Mosaic Alliance Call for Interest in a Multicultural Centre;
AND FURTHER THAT Council ask staff to submit a letter of interest signed by the Mayor or designate that Collingwood has strong interest in diversity and inclusion and would embrace the presence of a Multicultural Centre, and that land in the community would be made available subject to: confirmation of sustainable funding including from other levels of government; and to collaboratively developing the concept with the Ethnic Mosaic Alliance as a win-win for both parties.
CARRIED. (Unanimously)

You have to be wary when a government document uses the flaccid term “win-win” instead of offering actual details about costs or planning. Such trite and tired phrases are not binding or even definable except as more warm-and-fuzzy sentiments.

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4 Comments

  1. We don’t need that building. We need something about the heritage of Collingwood. Buy the bridges off the ships. And put them down the dock.
    Harbour views park is a park. You can’t
    Build nothing there. We filled it with garbage. You don’t need any wasted money studies. Smarten up town council.

  2. Collingwood

    Your 2021 EMA Board of Directors. From Left to Right: Sarah Uffelmann, David Lainez, Shelley Sarin, Miguel Mirna-Garcia, Carolina Belmares. Absent from the picture is Julie Kumar and Kris Roop.
    (from facebook)

  3. Collingwood

    What has EMA been up to? So Much! We have put out a request for land to municipal leaders across Simcoe County so we can build a beautiful Multicultural Centre. We can’t wait to start planning programs and building supports for ethno-cultural groups. We continue to wait for an announcement by the Ministry of Infrastructure, Community, Culture and Recreation regarding the construction grant. Meanwhile, … (from facebook).

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