Analysis: Soldiers’ Economic Impact

By John Swartz

Monday night’s committee meeting may turn out to be the most significant of the current term (with almost three years left to happen). Of the 170 pages on the agenda, 114 are for one report – the economic impact study relating to the relocation plan for Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital.

So far, after presenting options to rebuild on the current site and an option to relocate, the hospital board has come down on the side of relocation. This has left many with the impression and concern the new hospital will grow out the farmer’s field across Highway 11 in the West Ridge. Many, including SUNonline/Orillia, have expressed disagreement with that proposition. However, it has been clarified by the board a location on the east side of the highway is not ruled out.

The hospital needs at site of at least 20 acres. This might seem to rule out a site central to the City’s core, however the FL Smidth site on West Street South opposite the Orillia Recreation Centre is approximately 22 acres.

The report was prepared by Peter Thoma of Urban Metrics. There is a strong argument presented brownfield remediation and redevelopment, without referring to any specific site, has many benefits to communities and reads like an appeal to turn the gaze away from the West Ridge.

He cites provincial policy for intensification and remediation and the City’s investment in redevelopment in the downtown core as major reasons, along with this paragraph from Orillia’s Downtown Tomorrow Master Plan:

“Section 2.4 of the Plan specifically notes that the institutional presence of OSMH in Downtown Orillia is a key strength which should be protected and built upon to anchor the Downtown.”

A survey was conducted and more than 1000 residents, hospital users, OSMH staff members, volunteers and business owners provided input.

The report describes the amount of money directly and indirectly related to the hospital which makes Orillia tick to the tune of 20 percent of the local economy. It outlines taking that out of the core could have a negative effect on the surrounding businesses, the downtown, and on the City’s redevelopment and revitalization plan for the core.

He notes there are 114 doctors with offices within one block of the hospital, but does not enumerate other medical profession related offices and businesses (drug stores, labs, rehab, etc.).

An argument for a location in the West Ridge is many health care related occupancies and businesses relying on the hospital will follow leaving a more devastating effect on the downtown economy, health and viability.

There is a bit of a counter to that in the report, which is the one area issue could be taken. Three cases of doctor’s office migration closer to new hospitals was laid out and found no great difference. However the three examples are in the metro Toronto area and for a number of reasons office location is somewhat mitigated by things like public transportation, widely dispersed business activity and a much larger catchment area of hospital users. The examples given could be said to be irrelevant to Orillia where much effort has been made since the 90s to shore up the heart of the City, rather than allow economic drivers to sprawl in every direction as many other municipalities have.

One only has to look at what happened when Barrie’s Royal Victoria Hospital relocated out of their downtown to a farmer’s field in the north end of the city and compare the transfer of emptiness at that site to the downtown as the buildup of businesses (many in medical services) and residential development around the hospital happened.

The report states there is potential for an additional 900 jobs at a new, expanded hospital, plus a further 200 if the present building is converted to a long term care facility. Currently salaries of hospital employees account for $87 million and indirect and spin-off income adds another $27 million, so adding 1100 jobs will have tremendous effect, close to doubling current levels. This would also generated $3 million more in revenue for the municipality on an ongoing basis, and $5 million in the short term construction phase.

Of course, the final decision will be made in a board room in Toronto, which may take into account what the community and the hospital board wants, but if the location of the OPP detachment is any indication along with decisions on hospital location in Windsor and Collingwood, likely not. It will come down to – despite the benefits of rebuilding anywhere within an area no further than the distance of the hospital from West and Mississaga Streets in any direction, the maintenance of current economic activity, plus gains as compared to the cost of propping up a downtown without the single biggest institution in town present – a comparatively minor construction savings building on a greenfield across Highway 12 carrying the day.

It would be wise for everyone to familiarize themselves with the economic study and be vigilant about developments in this matter.

(Photo by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia)


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