It’s been about five years since the town purchased the former hospital for $3.6 million, and it continues to get closer to deciding what to do with it.
A steering committee, including three members of council, is now at the point where a request for expressions of interest is almost ready to go out to the public, looking for ideas and proposals for the future of the property, says Coun. Allan Bisback, a member of the steering committee.
Coun. Gary Burroughs is chair of the committee, and Lord Mayor Betty Disero is also a member.
Town staff have finalized the hiring of a fairness monitor, says Bisback, a move approved by council in March. The committee agreed the scale and sensitivity of the project called for a fairness monitor to oversee the process, said Bisback.
He is already getting calls and comments from people asking about the property, some anxious to share their ideas, and he is telling them he’s not able to talk about the project.
Although it’s early in the process, he’s not taking any chances of any perception of impropriety.
“We agreed to go to out to the market, with the request for expressions of interest, and to ensure the process is handled in a proper manner,” said Bisback.
The document requesting expressions of interest is likely to be finalized by the end of this month or early June, and after that, will hit the market, he said.
Bisback says the committee recently received a letter from the Friends of Fort George, which has also been made public, asking that the heritage significance of the former hospital site, which borders Parks Canada property, be respected.
When discussing the request for expressions of interest, the committee decided to make it as open-ended and accepting as possible, without placing any limitations on proposals, in an effort to receive a broad range of responses.
“We don’t want to limit people from submitting interesting and creative ideas,” he says. “We want to keep it open.”
Speaking for himself, he says, he has no preconceived ideas, nor has he heard anything from the public to indicate there are already discussions about the future of the property.
The purpose of the fairness monitor is to ensure that doesn’t happen, he says.
At the same time, council, which will ultimately make a decision about the property, is committed to the significance of heritage, and the Friends of Fort George have a valid concern.
“I appreciate their letter, but I’m not aware of anybody or any conversations that indicate any plans for the property.”
He says when he receives calls from various people about the property he says he can’t talk about it — it has to be a fair process, and once the request hits the streets, “nobody can have conversation or interaction with anybody.”
But the process has a long way to go, with opportunities for the public to weigh in at some point, especially if what is recommended requires a change of zoning from its current institutional use.
Given the pandemic and the downturn in the economy, he adds, “we may not get any interest.”
Assuming they do, they will need to create a process for evaluating the proposals, but that is a long way off.
“I don’t think anybody should be concerned yet. It’s very preliminary.”
Amanda Gamble, executive director of the Friends of Fort George, said the letter was intended as a reminder of the history of the sensitive property, bordering Parks Canada land. The Friends of Fort George are concerned about preserving the planes and sight lines from the fort, she says, and felt it was important to make the letter public as a way to remind those who might have an interesting proposal for the significant heritage property.
“I don’t think people know the important history of the property, or its heritage value,” she said. “We just want to be sure the community is aware of its significance.”
Whatever is developed on that property, she adds, “we want to be sure it fits with its heritage, and with its location at the entrance to town, with Fort George beside it and the Shaw Festival Theatre across the street.”