UPDATE: a press release issued after publication of this story advises the opening of the new Service Ontario location is delayed until April 8. The office will continue to operate at 150 Front Street South until Friday April 5.
By John Swartz
If you are planning to head down to the old train station on Front Street Monday morning to renew your driver’s license or plates, you are in for a surprise. The Orillia Distinct Chamber of Commerce, the operator of one of the province’s private Service Ontario outlets, is moving to 575 West Street South at the Highway 12 Bypass.
A quick tour this week revealed they are cutting it close to being ready.
‘It looks worse than it is. We’re getting there,” said Allan Lafontaine, the chamber’s managing director. If I would have walked you in here Monday and brought you back today you’d be really shocked at where we are. Most of it’s the final little touches,”
They are taking over the space formerly used by Curves For Women fitness. There will be two doors now, one for the Service Ontario office where you can renew license and OHIP cards, and one for chamber offices.
The Service Ontario side will have plenty of waiting room, four desks with personnel to update your licenses, and two of those desks will be accessible. Lafontaine said the experience will be quite a bit different starting Monday.
“You’re sitting in there and you have no idea how many people are working back there, how long you’re going to take,” Lafontaine said of the old office. “The space just didn’t make sense. It wasn’t a good delivery of service. People get frustrated.” At the new office everything is in plain sight, and there won’t be bus passengers taking up seats either, so there won’t be any guessing how long your visit will take
One thing won’t change, your picture will still look like a mugshot.
“Unfortunately we’re given the equipment from Service Ontario, so we’re in no control of that,” said Lafontaine.
The chamber has operated the license renewal facility for many years.
“It’s was brought in as a public service originally,” said Lafontaine. The chamber does make a profit after the expense of running the operation and paying staff, but it isn’t much, only contributing about 10 percent of the chamber’s annual operating budget.
“We saw our last increase (in fees paid by the province) in 2009. When your stickers keep going up and up, our fees are not. They don’t give us a share of that and say, “Hey, we’re increasing and we’re give you a little bit more.” It makes it a bit of a challenge,” said Lafontaine.
The move has been an on again, off again thing for several years because the City of Orillia wants to sell the train station. There was a plan to relocate to the legion two years ago, but it fell through. Then they found their new home.
“It took us a whole year, planning and everything,” said Lafontaine. Since the original intent to relocate he estimates the chamber has spent $350,000 counting previous initiatives and renovating their new home. The biggest sticker shock was the increase of construction costs.
“Construction costs are out of control. It’s amazing how much they’ve gone up in the last 5-10 years. Certainly a lot of that is due to regulation. The quotes were very high. We went with an alternative method, which involved the chamber being the prime contractor,” said Lafontaine.
“Rod Young did the design here and we used all chamber members for our sub-contractors.”
The chamber office take up less space in the new building, but the layout is more efficient, with the Service Ontario operation taking most of the footprint.
Many people don’t realize the licensing staff and operation are part of the chamber. Lafontaine has to switch hats (he’s also Harbour Master at the Port of Orillia) when he has to work on Service Ontario matters.
“I’m a security officer for Service Ontario. I have to have security clearance in order to walk on that side. We keep everybody’s information private,” said Lafontaine. He’s a thinker too, recognizing getting renewals isn’t always a quick stop.
“I certainly empathize with people coming in. I’ve done it before, where before I had this job you walk in and it’s really busy. You don’t have that kind of time,” said Lafontaine. He pitched an idea to the province to allow people to leave their phone contact information if the lineup is long, and then get a text to come in when things slow down.
“Service Ontario is seriously considering my model to go out to all private services,” said Lafontaine.
There’s one more change he hopes to see at the Willow Court Plaza where the new office is. Bruce Stanton’s office, the Provincial Court, the SCDSB Learning Centre and a few small businesses are already located there and he thinks the increase in traffic the chamber will bring might convince someone to open another business in an empty storefront.
“I’m just hoping somebody will open a nice restaurant where Al & Jan’s was. I believe we’ll bring in a significant amount of traffic. I’m not going to invest in one, obviously I’ve got too many things, I can’t wear another hat,” said Lafontaine.
(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia)
Orillia District Chamber of Commerce managing director Allan La Fontaine stands amidst the clutter of last minute renovation activity at the chamber’s new West Street South offices.