More than five years ago, I protested the Council decision to rebuild the derelict Loretto Convent and turn it into a civic museum. The cost was originally pegged at $12.7 million that was subsidized by some $6 million in federal and provincial government grants.
Today, the cost of restoring this building have soared with the city now admitting that more than $15 million has been spent with the final tally yet to be determined.
When the Farbridge dominated council was elected in 2006, it pledged to build a new downtown library. It did not happen and the prospect of a new taxpayer-funded downtown library has become a hauntingly hollow promise.
With the city exceeding its debt limit and revenues barely meeting spending, there is little room for maneuvering to meet the growing demand for a new library that could cost more than $53 million at last estimate.
And what kind of library is needed downtown? After studying what has been happening in libraries across Canada and the U.S., it is apparent that the library is no longer a place for just books. They have become community centres for social interaction and civic engagement.
Gone are the days of silence and stern librarians demanding fines for late returns. Instead libraries are encouraging events such as cooking demonstrations by local chefs, volunteer seniors helping children in the library, entrepreneurial databases for businesses and job seekers. The list goes on, as the library becomes not only a resource centre but also a community-gathering place for those seeking information and services.
It would be interesting to compare public attendance figures at the current downtown library with the newly opened civic museum.
Four years ago I wrote a column in the Mercury calling on Council to concentrate its resources by building the new downtown library, making it a community culture centre encompassing the civic museum, library, meeting places and city resource centre.
That suggestion was met with dead silence.
There are several major problems associated with proceeding with a new library.
The lack of city cash resources is a major stumbling block. Then there is the question of replacing the lost parking spaces on the Baker Street site. Not the least is the majority of council who are not in favour of private participation when developing the project.
Here is how it may be done. First, both city and private developers must develop a plan. The golden rule is that the private developer makes a profit to the point that his financing obligations are completed.
At this point the city and developer would share operating costs of the building. Parking fees, condo fees and retail leasing fees would be pooled to reduce costs to each party.
The city’s start-up contribution would be the land and funding facilities under its control and management.
The developer would receive the right to charge for parking in the new underground garage, constructing the designed building roughing in the city activity areas, and receiving permits to build condominium units to a height that allows a minimum of 100 units.
I know. I know. The height of some 28 to 30 storeys will scare the bejesus out of most community activists.
But what is the trade-off? It will be a beautiful, functional building visited daily by citizens and bring residents to the heart of downtown. Wasn’t that part of the Mayor’s promise to turn downtown into a vibrant and exciting area for all citizens?
There are a number of excellent developers and builders right here in Guelph who could be interested in the right deal. The catch, my friends is the attitude of the majority of city Council. If they are wrestling with current downtown proposals to create multi-storey housing downtown, what would be the fate of this proposal?