Council reverses course on Picton Town Hall

Picton Town Hall. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Six hours into meeting, ‘A Hall for All’ prevails

ADAM BRAMBURGER

STAFF WRITER

In the wee morning hours Wednesday, after sitting for six hours, Prince Edward County council reversed its previous decision and endorsed the “A Hall for All” proposal for Picton Town Hall.

Councillors heard from 18 deputations offering passionate positions on the matter before Picton councillor Kate MacNaughton successfully moved reconsideration of a previous motion from Sophiasburgh’s Bill Roberts that would see the municipality spend an additional eight months to consider alternative proposals for the heritage building sitting at 2 Ross St.

In her argument for reconsideration, MacNaughton noted that council hadn’t received staff’s report, nor respected the terms of the original expressions of interest proposal. She said she felt council owed it to both the Save the Picton Town Hall Working Group and Hymus Holdings to consider their proposals.

Roberts defended his position, stating that council hadn’t had a chance to deliberate what it wants to do with the proposals and he argued they had a fiduciary duty to do just that.

Public space The Picton Town Hall, a designated heritage building, will remain in the public domain after councillors supported the Save Picton Town Hall Working Group proposal Tuesday. (Jason Parks/Gazette staff)

He likened going with the bulk of the public commentary in support of the working group proposals to a popularity contest.

“We certainly didn’t get elected to become popular. It would have been a lot easier just to buy a dog,“ he said, while suggesting councillors might as well go to a hockey arena and follow a noise meter to make its decisions.

Picton’s Phil St. Jean countered by stating that by striking down the motion and going back to the original staff report, council would be effectively having the discussion necessary.

Mayor Steve Ferguson voiced support for the plan, stating similar volunteer groups formed for singular purposes, like Sophiasburgh’s County Food Hub group and the LoveSong Seniors Housing in Bloomfield had positive impacts on the community. Moreover, Ferguson spoke out against council’s process.

“Not supporting the staff recommendation sends entirely the wrong message to the volunteer groups we rely on so heavily in this community. We can’t afford to discourage their participation,” he said. “Upon time for sober second thought, it dawned on me another aspect council must consider very careful. This proposal we put forward was one to effectively change the rules, to move the goalposts, to defer. That is an extremely dangerous thing to do. Apart from the fact I don’t think that’s fair, it sends a message to volunteer groups, business and our residents to not place a lot of faith in the decisions of this council. It may change the game. Is there any wonder the public is cynical of governments at all levels, period?”

Hillier councillor Ernie Margetson and Bloomfield-Hallowell councillor Brad Nieman both spoke about reducing the eight month period to two months in order to allow council to make a good decision and to give staff clear direction on their wishes. Margetson, however, used the caveat that he wishes to see ongoing public access to the hall and he felt he would not support any proposal that removed it.

Eventually, after consulting with staff and adjusting the period to three months, council defeated their idea, choosing to vote on Roberts’ initial motion and eventually quash it. Ameliasburgh’s Bill McMahon indicated he could not stomach council delaying a decision any longer.

“We’re almost coming up to two years from the time this request for proposals went out. We received two proposals that fit within what staff asked. Why do we keep delaying the process? It makes no sense to me. They’re good proposals. We had people here who support them and really care about what’s in behind these proposals. It’s almost two years folks, we can’t keep kicking this down the road.”

Fellow Ameliasburgh councillor Andreas Bolik disagreed that there had been a lengthy review, noting the nine new councillors hadn’t been involved with the file for months and some had just three days to review it. He also said he believed council should support a sale of the building.

“I spent the last two weeks discussing it with a lot of people in Ward 4. One hundred per cent said sell the Town Hall. That’s not a message a lot of people want to hear, but that’s reality. These are all taxpayers hit with a significant increase in taxes.”

Nieman said he listened to deputants saying they wanted to keep the hall in public hands to maintain a community. He said he’s seeing the community disappear for another reason: cost.

“Our young are moving out, they don’t have jobs and they can’t rent. If they are renting, they have to make decisions between food, water and rent,” he said, adding he’s talked to a lot of seniors and some of them simply can’t afford to maintain their houses or move into town.

“For me, I’d like to be able to look and see what the best solution to this is. If we keep it, do we put taxes up again next year and the year after? If we do that, we’ll keep driving people out. I can’t sit here and say I served the people of Prince Edward County without looking for everything.”

He said three extra months to examine all options wouldn’t hurt anyone.

MacNaughton says she shared Nieman’s concerns about sustainability, but said both the working group’s plan and Hymus’s proposal for a pod-style hotel were sustainable and worthy of proper discussion.

Ferguson said he believed the group deserved the chance to operate the hall under a board of management plan. He also said he appreciated Hymus’ passion and significant contributions to the community. Ultimately, the mayor believed the building would retain value under the working group’s plan.

“This building, the Town Hall, is not going to depreciate in value. This is going to be an appreciating asset.”

Council did some wordsmithing on MacNaughton’s motion to follow the initial staff recommendation, which would direct staff to work with the Save Picton Town Hall Working Group on developing a terms of reference for the board of management; require that board to secure capital funding for leasehold improvements, ensure full cost recovery operations, and secure an anchor tenant within 18 months; and direct staff to report back in one year’s time regarding the progress.

Approved changes determined the terms of reference would be brought back to committee of the whole in May, that staff report back in six-month intervals, and that the word “maintenance” be included in the cost recovery clause.

Councillor Janice Maynard asked about the possibility of an early exit clause if it was clear the proposal wasn’t working, but director of community development and strategic initiatives Neil Carbone suggested the 18-month timeline would give an opportunity for the board to show it can operate feasibly in order to receive grant funding.

Councillors voted 8-4 to support the “A Hall for All” plan with Bolik, Maynard, Roberts, and Nieman voting against.