- by Anne Finlay-Stewart, Editor

When Owen Sound built its city hall in 1965 to replace the one that had burned down four years earlier, the world was a different place. The City owned its own electrical utility - Georgian Bay Energy; electricity and fuel oil were cheap and energy conservation a non-issue. Asbestos was still used in fire-retardant building materials. Accessibility of public buildings was barely considered, never mind the law.

Renovations now underway at that city hall are to address all these issues and more. As Councillor Brian O'Leary, chair of the ad hoc city hall renovations committee said when the plans were approved by council "...we're doing this renovation [because] the electrical and mechanical is failing beyond repair, the windows are leaking, there's water getting behind the brick, there's no insulation on the outside walls of the building, we have asbestos and mold in the building, there's not enough room at city hall for all of our staff and there's no room for storage."

How did the building get to this state? One of the key objectives of this work is to "replace failed mechanical, electrical, HVAC, firealarmoosplumbing, life safety and security systems". Not out-dated, or inefficient, but "failed". Years of engineering reports, staff complaints, short-term fixes and bills for heat pouring out of the building and water pouring in, all went across the table of successive councils. As technology, municipal mandates and staffing changed, it was up to our elected representatives to provide appropriate facilities in which city work was to be done.

Fear of voters' perception that tax increases were being spent on a "taj mahal" for elected officials – a charge that has been lodged against the Bluewater District School Board, Public Health, and now Grey County in their turn – may have kept those councils from approving appropriate preventative maintenance or upgrades to their most public asset.

Even now, some are questioning the cost while others would argue the current $8.3 million renovation lacks vision. The green roof and solar panels were removed from the proposal as a cost-saving measure. Restoration of some design elements of the original building was cut. Options which included a new shared-use building, even one with revenue generating possibilities, were rejected. There are neither bells nor whistles in this renovation.

The building renovations will offer a healthier, more efficient workplace for those who work on our behalf. They deserve that. As for the public parts of city hall, it will be up to the creativity of council and staff to demonstrate how they intend to make those, particularly an enlarged second floor with glass-walled meeting spaces and atrium, into a truly welcoming and well-used space for the community they serve.

The demolition phase is almost completed and city hall 2.1 is on time for substantial completion by March 31, 2018.
And then, we're told, the building will be good for another fifty or sixty years. Between now and the 2070s we have plenty of time to plan for City Hall 3.0.




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