Opinion: A Councillor’s Question

By John Swartz

More often than not, the real juice of an Orillia council committee agenda is not the reports from departments, but the enquiries councillors have on the agenda.  Enquiries used to be made verbally and sometimes the mere asking of a question would lead journalists and television viewing public to wonder – what’s up, or something’s up – because there was no advance notice and time to decipher what was being asked of staff.

This changed several years ago and now councillors have to submit their questions for inclusion on the agenda and it is rare an enquiry is made out of the blue, even for very fresh and important issues the whole community might be talking about and want some answers or action; it will just have to wait until the next committee meeting.

On Monday afternoon’s committee agenda one of the four enquiries reveals issues with a major development project which has long term consequences for the City of Orillia.

Councillor Ted Emond is asking for a report about, “The scope, scale and costs of commissioning an economic impact study (assessment) of Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital on the City of Orillia, and potentially the surrounding area, with a focus on the impact of the hospital on businesses located in the downtown core, where the hospital is currently located.”

This is a crucial question. Last year Soldier’s Memorial Hospital officials floated the idea the hospital needs to rebuild all the old parts. There are many reasons why they believe what we may think are perfectly fine buildings that have stood for decades need replacing. First, in case no one has noticed, medicine and the practice of medicine doesn’t even resemble what it was ten years ago, and likely will be totally different in 5 years.  Internally, the way the space is laid out, the way the supporting plant is structured are causing problems, and will cause more problems for how our hospital will function efficiently logistically and financially.  

The senior staff and board have made trips to government bodies of affect municipalities outlining four rebuilding proposals. Three of those show how the hospital can be rebuilt on the present site and one proposal to rebuild on a green field. Orillia doesn’t have any green fields, except in the West Ridge.

Councillor Emond’s request is an ammunition building exercise to eliminate the green field proposal from consideration. It is likely we are going to need a lot more than the kind of study he proposes. We have seen time and again how next level governments do what they want anyway, despite community wishes, to ‘save’ money.

Before going further, in conversation with the former administrative leadership of Soldiers’, it was apparent the ministry of health was pushing the green field option, not the staff who live and work among us. How the current administration thinks about relocating instead of rebuilding is a conversation yet to be had.

The SCDSB went on a dog and pony show twice, once to justify closing three schools and make another a warehouse sized facility. The community attended accommodation review sessions and listened to board officials speak in jargon. It was a feel good gesture the board was going to listen to the community, and then went ahead and closed three neighbourhood schools despite what many said, suggested, and asked for at the public meetings. Diving between the uttered words of school board officials, the decision was already made.  Same goes for Orillia Secondary School, and for the school naming process.

Orillia OPP detachment site
Orillia OPP detachment site, Old Barrie Road and University Avenue

The Ontario government didn’t ask and didn’t listen to our own council and decided to build an OPP detachment on the edge of town instead of on available land in the core. This is a move every single urban planner has said is not good for communities. People places (of which a police station is one of the most visited places on a daily basis, often by those with the most difficult circumstances to come and go to) should be located in the central core, the heart of a community, and where they are scattered about the periphery those communities are suffering with viability issues. We’re pretty positive somewhere exists such a professional person who doesn’t agree, but they are taking pains to be found.

The justification is it is cheaper to build on a former farmer’s field than to rebuild in the core. Well, it is. There is no argument against the economics there – if your economic model is operating in a vacuum.

Where’s The Savings?

The hospital is not an island unto itself, but to policy makers, planners and executors in downtown Toronto, Soldiers is an island and there will be no consequence to the community if they simply take a pencil and redraw its location on our map. The ministry of health may save 5% or 10% of a project budget by digging into fresh soil, but Orillia will pay multiples of whatever that figure is in community decay, and costs of trying to solve the gigantic whole in the middle of our community which threatens every aspect of life for several blocks either side of Mississaga Street between Westmount Road and Lake Couchiching.

Consider the number of other empty buildings and converted houses doctors use now that will be empty when they relocate to the other side of the highway – and they will. Consider the number empty buildings we will have to contend with when the pharmacies (we have three new pharmacies within spitting distance of the hospital added to the mix in the last 3 years) when they relocate. Consider the cost to the downtown merchants when a major reason to go downtown for a hospital or doctor visit is taken away and they close and relocate creating more empty buildings.

Consider the cost of maintaining an empty mammoth building from falling in on itself while the municipality tries every trick to find a new occupier – and if they do in 10 or 15 years time, the expense the municipality will have to find someone to repurpose a building so big there are very few other uses. Consider the cost and privately donated money that went into the building of Soldiers’s Community Tower to be abandoned. Consider the cost as homeowners flee to other neighbourhoods because they don’t want to own property in a neighbourhood with so many empty structures which only devalues the price of their properties. The list goes on, but hopefully you get the point.

We will pay many millions, likely tens of millions, beyond the paltry savings the ministry of health will have with the wrong decision, but that is not their concern, it doesn’t show on up on their budgets. The City of Orillia should not have to spend money on a study to justify what is readily apparent in a casual list making exercise. But the municipality will spend the money, the evidence will strongly favour keeping the hospital downtown, and the ministry will go with their Plan A and build in the West Ridge. Oh, we forgot one thing, accounting for the cost of the dog and pony show, architects drawings, fancy presentation materials and administration costs of making us think they are going to listen to us.

This should be a nine-nothing vote to approve. If a councillor votes against spending the money we will question if they understand their position, maybe their motives, because voting against is really not in the City’s best interest.

 (Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia)


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