Posted Jun 21, 2012, 3:03 AM
Join Date: Mar 2012
Location: London, Ontario
Possible deals may seal fate of city hall
Private, gov’t partners could spur on project
WINDSOR, Ont. -- Several potential development deals involving both private companies and other levels of government are the reason the City of Windsor is looking at building a new city hall, Mayor Eddie Francis says.
Which companies? Which government agencies? No one is saying — but the potential deals are out there and could lead to a new civic icon in the heart of the downtown estimated to cost $37 million or more.
Because of confidentiality agreements, silent city councillors didn’t ask a single question this week as they unanimously approved a $150,000 study to determine if there is a business case for building a new city hall.
The money for the study was carved out of the city’s capital spending budget, which was approved Monday after only a few hours of debate.
Francis says council was so quiet about what normally would be a really big deal — for most communities, the building of a new city hall usually comes around only once every half century, or even less often — because there’s nothing to talk about yet.
“There’s nothing to question until there’s a business report,” Francis said Wednesday.
The report won’t be ready for “three to four months.” By then some of the potential deals may start edging into the open. But council isn’t going to start talking about them until the proponents are ready, he said.
If the deals pan out Windsor may find itself building a new city hall; if they don’t materialize, there won’t be one — it’s that simple, the mayor said with his characteristic shrug.
“We will never recommend a project unless we can afford it,” he said, speaking on behalf of council. “Everything we do has a solid business plan and does not cause incremental tax increases.”
Are the chances of a new city hall 50-50? “Yeah, I’d say that. But if we could squeeze another five years out of this building, I’d prefer that. I don’t really want to build a new city hall.”
Francis said he did not want to identify the private sector companies whose needs for office space in the core may lead to a space shortage in the downtown, possibly tipping over some real estate dominoes.
Nor would he identify which government agencies or quasi-government groups might be looking for space. But they involve both the federal and provincial levels, he hinted.
Construction of the 400 Building on City Hall Square in 2002 came about the same way, Francis points out, when federal employment groups, provincial welfare agencies and the city’s own social services department all started looking for new space at the same time.
The city ended up spending $32 million on the 400 Building, which has 160,000 square feet on four floors.
Windsor could have had brand new space to house City Hall staff back then had council agreed to spend only $5.4 million extra to add two extra floors to the 400 structure. That would have provided enough space to replace the existing city hall “dirt cheap.”
Instead the project — although successful, well built, and well received as an architecturally dignified addition to the downtown — led to a bitter years-long fight over cost audits that ultimately found nothing wrong.
But the controversy has left most councillors gun shy of replacing city hall, which is structurally sound but small- town ugly, outdated, and riddled with failing mechanical systems, according to a report to council.
The potential site of a new city hall is part of the business study. The municipality owns sufficient space for another building directly south of the current structure, where a courthouse and the former police headquarters once stood.
How big would it be? That depends on if and how the potential deals come together, Francis said. Five storeys? Ten? “Depending on the consolidated space needs ... it might be large.”
A large office building with varied tenants, sponsored by the city, would raise questions about Windsor unwisely building a “Canderel Two,” I told the mayor. That office project, housing the headquarters of Chrysler Canada, remains one of the city’s biggest financial failures.
Canderel cost taxpayers at least $50 million in expropriation costs, lease obligations and wasted management time which will never be recouped. A previous mayor and a previous council approved it during the 1990s.
“How long is it going to take us to get past that?” an exasperated Francis fumed at the question. “When we built the WFCU, people said taxes would go up. They didn’t for four or five years in a row.
“Now that we’re building the aquatic centre people are saying, ’You watch, taxes are going to go up.’ No they won’t.” In fact the aquatic centre will save millions in operating costs compared to the four antiquated recreation facilities it will replace, he said.
Francis points to $624 million in civic capital projects approved and managed by the current council over the past six years which have all come in on time and under budget, without mishap and without new debt.
The $70-million aquatic centre will be paid off in 2015 out of the city’s annual cash flow rather than issued debt. The $71-million WFCU Centre is paid off, as is the new $41 million Huron Lodge.
The City of Windsor is a rare municipality in that it finances major projects on a “pay-as-you-go” cash basis that city treasurer Onorio Colucci says saves taxpayers $30 million per year in interest payments on bonds.
“That’s a direct result of our fiscal discipline,” the mayor says — both council’s, and administration’s. “We’re spending within our means, and delivering on all our promises.”
“We paid off the Canderel project 10 years ahead of schedule. Think about that; that’s huge. Ten years ahead of schedule. I thought we’d have a huge mortgage-burning ceremony. But people seem to think that’s normal now.”
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