Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 27, 2014
The winding journey that was the life of the new civic services complex downtown seems to have written what is hopefully the final chapter, as the city is poised to move some planning and community services to the newly renovated structure at the corner of Seventh Street and Princess Avenue.
Officially redubbed the A.R. McDiarmid Civic Complex, this structure, which began as a grocery store back in the latter part of the 1960s, has seen a varied life and now a couple of incarnations as a city-run facility.
For downtown, this appears good, as it will inevitably increase foot traffic in and around the structure during the day. But aside from a youth facility on-site, this makes one more building that will be vacated when quitting time rolls around.
The city has pushed for decades, through organizations like the BIA and Renaissance Brandon, to have traffic downtown after dark, and although this building is somewhat on the periphery of the HUB district, it still serves the same purpose as the office spaces — those same office spaces that become ghost towns when the sun goes down.
It leaves many to wonder whether the general museum relocating on-site or another more commercial entity would have injected life into the corner after-hours as opposed to more darkened office space.
The new complex obviously plays into the long-term strategy for the ever-expanding city services, but as was shared this past week in the Brandon Sun, it also came at a premium. The complex has been on and off the city’s books since the early ’80s, when the city purchased it for library space. With the most recent renovations, it has eclipsed $10 million in investment on a singular property.
If you trace the funding back to when it was the public library, the city doled out $3 million to purchase and convert the building to library space and then another $3 million to move the library out and into The Town Centre. Subsequent to that, money was spent to change the parking and street structure when the city was entertaining a combined police and fire station downtown before that finally fell through.
After that combo went south, the comedy of errors that was our city’s flirtation with mega call centre Convergys took place. Convergys would occupy the space for the next four years of what was supposed to be a much longer marriage.
The company pulling up stakes well early of its perceived “commitment to the community” left the large complex once again on the city docket completely, with a challenging retrofit to change it from its call centre design.
After plenty of back and forth and numerous potential suitors since Convergys left, the city has been put back in the position of using the space itself as opposed to trying to secure another suitor for the complex.
Long story short, the civic services’ move to the new building cost ratepayers another $3.25 million to renovate the nearly 50-year-old structure, pushing the lifetime investment over the $10-million mark.
Without a doubt, there will be some questions raised by challengers to the current council over the cost and need for this structure and the fact the city has another full-service civic complex on the books requiring maintenance and upkeep undoubtedly stretches the financials a bit thinner. The space seems to be a necessary evil, but it is a much more difficult sell when you look at it from a cost versus return on investment scenario.
If the priorities of the next council shift, you have to wonder whether the priorities for further expansion and or management of large civic structures will be the same.
As mayoral hopeful Rick Chrest alluded to this past week, his “back to basics” mantra may tip the cards a bit on where he and like minds see spending best utilized in a city with a limited funding well.
There is no doubt that leaving another building to decay downtown was not the best scenario, and having the city needing to board up one of its own would have been terrible optics at best. The hope remains, though, that the city utilizes this complex to its full potential and the synergies it has alluded to through combined departments are abundant in the new centre.
Perhaps the redevelopment of the old fire hall across the street will provide some much-needed life after dark, playing into the possibilities many had hoped for with that corner since the city moved the library back in the day.