-by Richard MacDonald

I have stated publicly at committee meetings that I thought the sale of the Courthouse to Southbridge rather than to the Tom Thomson Gallery was a terrible decision. That was when I thought the sale exceeded $200,000. Seeing the city sell the old Courthouse (the city's most historically important building) for $10 has not changed my opinion in the least.

There are two reasons why I think the decision is so poor.

First, in terms of heritage designation this is not a situation like the Queen's Hotel or Branningham Grove where the decision for council was whether to designate or not, and where they failed in both cases to protect the properties. The Courthouse has been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act since 1979. There is no decision required here or negotiating options. Under the Act, Council is obliged to protect all of the heritage attributes. They cannot bargain them away for what Council describes as "other considerations" and "significant financial impacts".

When Marg Gaviller asked her two questions on what Council was doing to protect the Courthouse and whether they would deny requests from the new owner for changes, the mayor referred the question to the city manager who skilfully skirted the topic completely. Council has been eerily silent on the issue despite the developer's stated interest in the facade only. They have not been to provide any explanation for the decisions that have led to this sale so far.

I'm also concerned about the intended use of the building as a long term care facility. As a primary heritage site, the intended use offers no opportunities for future public engagement, cultural enrichment, or the promotion of community values. Southbridge Capital operates a large investment fund and their interest in heritage is dubious at best. There were certainly other sites in the area for a nursing home or care centre including empty schools nearby. Their decision for this site is clearly a financial decision only.

Secondly, I have to question Council's long term vision on this sale and their analysis of the possible benefits. Does our future lie in more nursing homes, or does it lie in other areas like art, culture, education or technology? Many of our councillors and parts of the report presented by our Economic Development Officer push the repetitive political mantra that we need more jobs and growth to make our city prosperous. They say these "long term jobs and business activity will have a substantial ongoing impact". In truth the 30 or so jobs will have no more impact than the many jobs created at the Walmart Smart Centre or Heritage Grove Mall. Our city coffers have continually shrunk. Jobs and growth do not create prosperity. It is the other way around. Prosperous cities are the ones that attract jobs and create growth.

The people who lead our cities have to create a new pattern of development, and implement the policies, programs and services from which jobs and growth will ultimately flow. There is reason why the manager's sale report contains no actual figures of the significant impacts noted. They cannot be calculated and likely don't exist. In nearly every North American city the balance sheet does not benefit from a new job. It simply doesn't happen.

Dropping your asking price by over $200,000 to potentially save $15,000 and undetermined benefits doesn't make sense.

Dropping millions of dollars in development fees for undetermined financial impacts doesn't make sense.

Choosing a development that may contribute thousands of dollars annually over the short term (10 to 30 years) over a project that could bring in millions annually for a long term (10 to 100 years) doesn't make sense.

Saying that you can't set targets for your strategic plan because any improvement is enough – doesn't make sense.

Richard MacDonald is a member of Owen Sound's Community Heritage and Planning Advisory Committee.


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