Council and Town staff welcome public comment
BY GLORIA J. KATCH
Special to the VOICE
In spite of the fact that the Town has depleted its cash reserves, “the ‘For Sale’ sign” is still not on the building,” said Pelham Mayor Marvin Junkin, after a public information meeting was held on the fate of the Haist Street arena last Monday, February 11.
Two public information sessions, attended by about 150 residents, were held at the community centre, the construction of which is the main reason for the Town’s debt-load.
Junkin told the audience that not selling the old arena could result in a tax hit of 10%, or $120 per household, if the public opted to keep the facility.
“If people are willing to take that much of a tax hike, we are willing to keep it,” he said earlier.
Teresa Quinlin, Treasurer and Interim Chief Administrative Officer, estimates the tax increase would be in excess of 7 percent if demolition of the building and remediation of the surrounding soil were to be paid for in their entirety within the next budget.
Town Council will wait to hear what the “majority of people” in Pelham choose through email, an online survey conducted by the Town, and a poll in the Voice.
“There are lots of ways to reach us,” Junkin said.
The results of a Voice poll on the proposed sale run in this week’s edition on page 2. Residents support selling the arena by 2-to-1, and 86 percent of respondents say that they are unwilling to see their property taxes rise by even a dollar to keep it.
The Town’s poll started this Monday and is set to run through Monday, March 4. It may be found at www.pelham.ca/arena-lands
Junkin confirmed there would not be a referendum on this issue, which has been ongoing since 2014, when engineering reports indicated the arena’s structural damage was too extensive to fix to maintain compliance with building codes. Since then, there have been ongoing consultation processes and information meetings, including surveys to determine the public’s input.
In 2017, 650 properties and 28 community groups and organizations received emails to comment on “preferred” choices regarding eventual development of the property, which the Town eventually declared surplus. The history of public consultation is on Pelham’s website. The Town’s presentation of options, however, did not include retaining the site for use as a public park, which drew criticism from many in the adjacent neighbourhood. Nearly every candidate elected to council last October campaigned on a promise to reexamine the Town’s decision to sell the land.
As Treasurer, Quinlin gave a snapshot of the Town’s current financial status. She asserted that the Town had invested nearly all of its cash in tangible capital assets, and had borrowed from reserves and reserve funds to pay for these projects, mainly in East Fonthill.
According to Quinlin, in May the Town will receive an audited 2018 financial statement that indicates $8 million in cash was borrowed, but the Town is expecting $6.7 million will eventually be returned in development charges.
Currently, the Town’s wallet is empty, while it does have a credit line of some $7 million dollars up to September 30, and $4.5 million dollars between then and the end of this year.
An audience member calculated all of the upcoming capital and budgetary costs and said, “In total we’re basically $43 million dollars in debt.” Quinlin affirmed the amount.
“We’re working on trimming it,” said Quinlin about the cost of projects designated for funding in the upcoming capital budget.
In 2019, there are $2.6 million dollars-worth of ongoing projects, deferred from previous years. Currently, the proposed capital budget indicates a 4% tax hike for this year, excluding the Region’s portion, which will likely add several percentage points. The Town is hoping that revenue generated from selling the arena—with its assessed value of $2.7 to $3 million dollars—will cover this $2.6 million requirement.
In an earlier interview with the Voice, Quinlin estimated that the cost to demolish the arena could be some $500,000, though acknowledged that the figure was speculative.
During the public meeting, Barb Wiens, Director of Community Planning and Development, explained that due to the tarmac and development surrounding the building, remediation of the soil is estimated at another $500,000. When asked about the costs to sell it, Wiens said the property would be sold “as is,” and the buyer or developer would be picking up the tab for these costs. In the Town’s original 2018 realty listing, such removal and remediation by the buyer were stipulated as conditions of sale.
Sources familiar with an earlier offer of $3 million dollars on the property say that the deal fell through at the last moment, but didn’t know whether the demolition and remediation requirements were what killed it.
As a result of surveys and consultation meetings, Wiens outlined five different design plans as to how the site should be developed. The recommendations were the result of “not one point, but many viewpoints,” she said, from agencies, staff, consultations with developers and the public.
From the public’s input, the Town concluded in 2017 that it would sell only the arena and existing parking lot, not the adjacent woodlands, soccer field, and playground. The property would be sold on condition that the buyer develop it in accordance with a predetermined concept that would see a mix of townhouses and detached homes build on the site. The previous town council approved this plan in 2017.
Wiens said that enhancement of the remaining recreational amenities would be determined in consultation with the buyer.
Audience member Andy Lucchetta asked if the Town received $3 million for the arena, and allocated $2.6 million of the proceeds to cover capital projects currently underway, whether the excess $400,000 could be used to develop the park and playground, including a splash-pad for children. Quinlin answered, “This would definitely be a consideration, but it hasn’t come up yet.”
When another audience member asked about increased traffic once new housing was built, Wiens said that concerns about parking and traffic would be addressed in more detail once a specific subdivision plan was brought forward.
Another participant asked whether the Town could offer affordable housing to the community. Wiens replied that the Niagara Regional Housing Corporation deals with this type of housing model, which is geared to income, and this was “tricky to deal with.”
Despite the Town’s plan for townhouses and single-family dwellings, another audience member asked if a developer could change this concept once the land was purchased. Wiens replied that it was possible, but current zoning calls for townhouses, and this could not be changed without applying for a zoning variance, which would have to be approved by council.
Mayor Junkin reaffirmed the Town would not sell the property for less than $2.7 million dollars. When asked if the Town was so desperate for cash that it would sell the land at a “fire sale” price, Junkin replied that current offers range from $2.7 to $3 million, which the Town considers acceptable.
Questions were asked about the recreational use of the area, and Wiens said the Town has a, “separate cultural master plan for development. When we do the development application, we look at that through that lens as well.”
Vickie vanRavenswaay, Director of Recreation, Culture and Wellness, said the Town is, “well supplied with soccer fields,” and noted that the nearby Harold Black Park was better suited for play, as opposed to the Haist Street lands, which contained some “quicksand” areas.
Resident Debbie Demizio commented that she was pleased the Town wasn’t just asking about what choices to make regarding the sale, but whether or not the sale should occur at all.
While most questions posed by those in the audience didn’t indicate directly whether they were for or against the sale, one man said he knew that Regional and police budgets were escalating, and he didn’t want to experience, “any more increases” in Pelham.
Council will consider next month how it wishes to proceed, after staff collates public comment obtained between now and March 4. Councillor email addresses and telephone numbers may be found in the Voice’s ongoing “Contact Your Elected Officials” feature on page 4. The Town’s online opinion poll may be found at www.pelham.ca/arena-lands
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