Wide-eyed rookie councillor, Todd Dennis, accompanied by a Mercury reporter, toured the Loretto convent transformed into a new Civic Museum recently to discover the impressive views of downtown Guelph.
The project started out as a reclamation project by the 2007 council to preserve the pre-confederation building, located on Catholic Hill and owned by the Hamilton Diocese.
At the time, the proposal by new city councillor, Leanne Piper, former head of the Guelph Heritage Society, was to cost $12.7 million as determined by city staff.
Remember back then? There were other pressing capital projects including a new downtown library on Baker Street, rebuilding the wet waste plant and completion of the $35 million new City Hall and Provincial Courts conversion of the old City Hall.
Whew! You’d think that would require some deep thinking about how to pay for all these projects. The fallout was to come later.
Well, the Convent conversion project became the centrepiece for the Farbridge Administration in 2007.
In the ensuing time the new City Hall project ballooned in cost and completion delays causing the contractor to be fired. The company then sued for $19 million for breach of contract. That lawsuit has yet to be settled.
Chief librarian Norman McCloud retired fuming that council sidetracked the proposed new downtown library.
Meanwhile council embarked on the creation of a wet waste management project that would ultimately cost taxpayers $50 million.
Then came the $74 million stimulus program in partnership with the Provincial and Federal governments in which the city had to pay one-third of the costs.
To shore up sagging city finances, Mayor Farbridge, along with the Guelph Hydro directors, promoted the sale of Guelph Hydro. This was rejected by council with some of the Mayor’s own supporters failing to approve it. Undeterred, The Mayor persuaded council to call the $30 million note it held against Guelph Hydro. Those proceeds are long gone today.
The decision to go ahead with the Loretto Convent restoration was five years ago.
After a long-term lease was arranged with the owners. Two attempts were made to design a building that would retain the heritage aspects of the original, yet install modern facilities to bring the derelict structure up to code.
Then as the years rolled by, it was discovered that the foundation needed reinforcement and all facilities including windows, floors and staircases had to be replaced and utilities rebuilt.
The official opening will occur in February but the landscaping will not be completed until summer. Also access to the museum will be restricted as Cork Street is being rebuilt.
It is difficult to accept that the original estimate for this project is accurate today. The very fact that it has been under construction for more than four years would indicate the unexpected construction problems plus inflation that costs would increase. What contractor in his right mind would agree to a fixed price and guarantee it for four years?
At one point, that city revealed that the costs had increased to $15.2 million. Despite the generous donations of Hugh Guthrie and others, and the potential sale of the previous Dublin Street site of the museum, the cost of this project has far exceeded the original estimate.
Why then does the city insist the original estimate is accurate? Coun. Dennis was impressed that the price was $12.7 million. Perhaps he ought to check out the real costs of this project
If for no other reason than to satisfy the public of the true costs and provide a historical record for future councils. It is appropriate for an independent audit of the projects particularly in view of the management turmoil in the finance and treasury department
I have no quarrel with the project that it will be a good addition to the city’s culture when finally completed. But four years later, at what cost?