Opinion: Trouble Brewing At Soldiers’

By John Swartz

We have a problem, Orillia. The board of Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital plans to change its manner of operation by eliminating the voice of community members at a meeting January 30.

Anyone can buy a membership to the hospital, which allows a vote on board members and the ability to move motions at the annual general meeting. The board also tried to get rid of the seats occupied by ex officio members including the legion, the nurses association and one from City Council (held by Mayor Don McIsaac), but gave up on this initiative when they determined ex officio members could not be removed.

That would have left 12 voting members of the board. None of the names of these people are familiar with involvement in other community endeavours. Only one is known to live in Orillia, several live in Severn Township at a least one each in Oro-Medonte and Ramara. Virtually all of them have never had their names in the media here for any reason other than as members of the hospital board. Their investment in Orillia stops at the boardroom door.

The point is, the board will not reflect the community that built the hospital, and the decisions around building a new hospital will be made by people who have no sense of what, and particularly where, a new hospital will be.

It is our hospital. Sure over time the province, through its funding, has changed Soldiers’ into a regional hospital and many people from Port Severn to Bracebridge, Beaverton and Hawkestone consider it their hospital too.

Charles H. Hale came up with the idea to build a hospital and provide free medical care to veterans in 1916 and the hospital opened in a new building in 1922 (Orillia’s original hospital was a converted house adjacent to the new hospital).

Several additions were built between 1952 and 1980, which many Orillians knew as their hospital until 2006 when the Community Tower was opened. We contributed $80 million to the cost of the Community Tower. So did the City of Orillia, the County of Simcoe, and the surrounding townships, which means those who wrote a cheque or participated in various fundraising events contributed taxes too.

A new hospital will cost $1 billion, or likely more, and once again we will be asked to contribute to a fundraising drive of anywhere from $200 million to $250 million – after our representation on the board is eliminated.

This matters a lot because, as SUNonline/Orillia has previously stated, a new hospital should be located, certainly in City limits, and more beneficial to the community in countless ways – chiefly our economic health – as close to the central core as possible.

There is/was one such property on West Street opposite the Orillia Recreation Centre that fit the bill. SUNonline/Orillia was previously told 20 acres would be needed to build on, which that property is. Recently, without explanation, the property size was increased to 25 acres, taking the West Street property out of the running, without having to attach additional developed land.

That leaves west of Highway 11. This would be a gigantic mistake. Our downtown will suffer greatly with the departure of the hospital to the West Ridge, and with it the economic health and general wellbeing of the entire community. It will take several years to assess the full effect of losing the hospital. Then dump trucks of money from other levels of government and City coffers will be needed to mitigate the loss.

There is unconfirmed scuttlebutt a developer has offered land of sufficient size in Oro-Medonte.

Interestingly, the hospital has powers of expropriation, which could be used to build on property on blocks the hospital already occupies parts of (parking lots, out buildings). The argument it can’t be built in the area already occupied by the hospital and there is no other land of sufficient size in town, let alone close to the core, is fabricated.

Sure it will be a bit more expensive to tear down, excavate, and build in the core area instead of plowing under rows of corn and pouring cement on a farmer’s field. But that is only if you are looking at the project with blinders on. Yes, on the hospital ledger sheet the cost will be marginally (in context of the full construction budget) more, but the cost to the community and years spent trying to bounce back from the exit of the hospital to the nether regions will be magnitudes more and we may never bounce back with such a gigantic loss.

On what makes successful communities, there is no publication this author is familiar with that advocates building people places (hospitals, City Halls, police and fire stations, libraries, arenas, etc.) on the periphery. They all say put those things as close to the centre as possible, or suffer the consequences. It’s interesting to read about what decline looks like when short-sighted municipal leaders build up the edges instead of the middle.

On the question of where to build, many of the board are leaning toward a detrimental-to-the-City-as-a-whole location and is the reason for ditching the membership component. It clears the way to depart the City.

The antidote, of sorts, is to become a member of the hospital. The annual fee is $25 (renewable end of March), or $200 for a lifetime membership. Unfortunately, even in the digital age, an online form is not available and you have to go to the hospital (cashier’s desk) to become a member.

There is a 60 day cooling off period before new members can vote, which presents a problem. Changing by-laws is a two step affair. At Tuesday’s meeting the board will adopt, or not, the change under discussion here. Then they have to schedule a special meeting for the membership to vote themselves out or reverse the decision. That can’t happen for another 25 days (which still makes new members unable to vote). But that meeting may be scheduled to a later date.

Still, one would think a sudden and dramatic increase of hospital members during the day Tuesday would send message to the board to tread carefully. Get going.

(Photo by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia)


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