Fate of historical buildings to be decided; council considers stream-lining real estate portfolio

HIGH ON THE MOUNT- In a KPMG report submitted to council, it was suggested the County of Prince Edward divest a number of properties including Mount Tabor Playhouse. (Gazette Photo)

SARAH WILLIAMS

STAFF WRITER

The future of many historical buildings and properties in the county could be up for debate by Prince Edward County Council. The possibilities for these spaces, from the Sophiasburgh town Hall to Huyck’s Point, was brought before council during their December 14th meeting by way of a presentation from Bruce Peever of KPMG Canada.

It was made clear during the meeting that the presentation in question did not include any recommendations from staff and that no decisions would be made immediately.

This third-party review of municipal properties was commissioned by the municipality in August 2021, the purpose being, as per Peever, to familiarize council with more efficient ways to utilize the buildings and properties currently owned by the municipality.

“What we found is the majority of the county’s facilities are under utilized and the county does not have a stream-lined process for tracking them,” said Peever, before unpacking his presentation.

The two main goals of the KPMG consultation, as Peever stated, were:

  1. Identify and develop opportunities that would result in a greater understanding of how to make best use of the County’s properties to serve local residents and user groups in an accessible and equitable fashion; and,
  2. Develop an action plan that would provide cost-savings and improved efficiencies across the County

The consultation zeroed in on 32 municipal properties. These include the Mount Tabor Playhouse and the recently revamped Picton Town Hall, among many other community venues.

“From our inspections of the buildings, we found for the most part they did not meet the required legislative requirements and there are currently no plans to meet the provincial requirement to make Ontario accessible by 2025,” said Peever, referring to the accessibility of each building.

He also noted regular inspections by County Staff have uncovered building maintenance issues, requiring “significant capital investments” to bring the buildings up to accessibility standards and to make them operationally efficient.

In speaking about administrative buildings, such as Shire Hall, Peever noted interviews with stakeholders revealed a lack of administrative space.

“Stakeholder interviews revealed many of the existing facilities lack appropriate administrative space resulting in County staff dispersed across multiple facilities,” he said. “These existing facilities are also geographically spread across the County reducing any type of operational efficiency that can be gained from a centralized office. To achieve this efficiency from a centralized office, the County is currently leasing administrative space in the Edward building for County staff. A lack of space for the County’s fleet of vehicles and equipment is also a concern.”

Peever suggested, with the pandemic and subsequent rise of people working from home, that some administrative roles within the municipality could be done remotely, reducing the need for office space.

With issues to be found in the county’s real estate portfolio laid bare, Peever offered two solutions to council.

The first, and simpler option, is to maintain the status quo.

“The first option for the County is to maintain the current real estate holdings and begin to reinvest in the buildings’ state of repair and accessibility standards. While this option is politically less problematic, the financial commitment to bring the County’s current real estate portfolio up to a state of good repair compliant with accessibility standards will be significant,” explained Peever. “Even if the County were to pursue this option, it would still be left with a large number of under-utilized buildings. It is highly unlikely given the size of the capital investment required that the County would be able to sustainably achieve this option, leaving the County with the risk of below-standard buildings and facilities.”

North Marysburgh Councillor Stewart Bailey. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

The second option presented to council involves disposing of less-utilized buildings, thereby reducing the operating cost associated with the municipal property portfolio.

“The second option for the County is to dispose of its under-utilized, less functional facilities/properties. Consolidating the County’s real estate portfolio into a more utilized portfolio based on the current and medium-term needs of the County will allow it to sustainably maintain these buildings and address accessibility standards,” suggested Peever. “The County can concentrate the limited funding for the buildings on those properties with the highest and best versus spreading it across multiple low-use properties. A consolidated and utilized real estate portfolio will reduce the County’s operating costs and improve its efficiency both in service delivery and internal operations.”

Peever stated divesting of under-utilized buildings will free up revenue to seed a Building Maintenance Reserve, from which the remaining municipal buildings/properties could draw upon for maintenance or repairs.

Peever further proposed an assessment tool that would allow the municipality to create a life-cycle for the remaining buildings and help to guide financial decisions.

“The Building Condition Assessment will allow the County to create a life-cycle based financial plan for its high value facilities. The County will then have an annual maintenance plan for each of its properties and preplanned funding for the maintenance (e.g., roofs, HVAC systems, accessibility improvements),” said Peever.

In his presentation, Peever pointed to the following properties for divestment: Picton Town Hall, Wellington Town Hall, Hillier Town Hall, Former Hillier Fire Hall, Former Consecon Fire Hall  and vacant land at Prinyer’s Cove.

He suggested properties to be sold to affordable housing could include Benson Hall and H.J. McFarland Memorial Home.

Properties to be sold to community groups could include the Sophiasburgh Town Hall and Mount Tabor Playhouse.

Bill Roberts. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Finally, Peever suggested the municipality end their lease agreement in the Edward Building.

Following the presentation, Councill Stewart Bailey inquired as to whether Peever had conducted interviews with various user groups of the town halls in question.

“Underutilization comes up a lot in this report. You mentioned, in your report, that you conducted interviews,” said Bailey. “When you conducted these interviews, did you talk to the folks at the various town halls by which I mean the recreation committees, boards etc. about utilization and their thoughts on how these buildings might be better utilized?”

In response, Peever stated these user groups had not been consulted.

Councillor Bill Roberts spoke of his recent experience at the Demorestville Town Hall (a.k.a. The Sophiasburgh Town Hall), describing it as the heart of the community.

“Today, I met with 15 community group members at the Sophiasburgh Town Hall and we were celebrating the delivery of 1,000 hot meals to those in need in our community. Those 15 volunteers see that town hall as their heart and soul, their place of gathering,” expressed Roberts. “They were also pretty upset about this notion of selling the town hall to the community because all of them remember their forebears building that town hall and owning it when Sophiasburgh was an independent township. I would say half remarked this review by force of events had to take place during COVID and that in a non-COVID world, there would be far more events in the town halls. It’s a very different town hall than the word underutilized seems to indicate.”

In speaking to this, Roberts asked Peever to confirm the timeline of the analysis and whether or not cultural/heritage value had been taken into account.

“The data we used to conduct our analysis was based on 2019, so prior to pandemic. The second part of the question is that a large part of our analysis was based upon numbers, such as financial data, however we also took into consideration the historical significance and status of the facilities and that was quite important to us,” stated Peever. “I am actually from rural, Northern Ontario and where I grew up we had several community centres similar to the ones here. They provide life to the community. That said, they are buildings that require maintenance and capital investment.”