Pinsonneault fears once $2 million is committed, the train will have left the station with no return

·4 min read

Downtown Chatham is one step closer to receiving a major upgrade.

During the latest council meeting, council voted in favour of several staff recommendations regarding the proposed Imagine Chatham-Kent project.

A request for proposals will now be issued for a comprehensive study. Among the recommendations that were approved include using up to $2 million to examine further the feasibility and what steps would have to be taken to make it happen. The money will be funded through the Municipality’s Building Lifecycle Reserve.

“Simply put, based on the scale of this proposal, its outstanding questions, risks and public demand for further input, the administration has determined there is currently insufficient capacity internally for the type of due diligence required to advanced this project in a timely, responsible manner,” said General Manager of Community Development Bruce McAllister.

In early June, a group of local investors who purchased the Downtown Chatham Centre revealed their preliminary redevelopment plans for the site and their plans to revitalize the downtown core.

The detailed report outlines costs to move municipal offices, the Chatham library, and the Chatham Cultural Centre into the privately-owned downtown Chatham mall and build a 4,000-seat arena.

The proposal is divided into three phases.

Phase One includes the redevelopment of the former Sears portion of the Downtown Chatham Centre into a facility capable of hosting current operations from the Civic Centre, Chatham Library, and the Museum and Art Gallery portions of the Cultural Centre. This phase will also include the construction of the adjacent promenade and transferring a repaired parking garage to the Municipality. Phase I of the project would be $53 million.

Phase Two includes the construction of the entertainment complex along with a privately retained commercial segment along King Street. The cost for Phase II would be between $60-70 million.

Phase Three will be privately retained for future development, including possible housing or a hotel.

Council also approved a request for a proposal to obtain an independent firm to oversee several aspects of the next phase of due diligence.

According to McAllister, the goal is to have the firm provide final recommendations on the scope and direction of the next steps for Phase One by February 2023. A report on Phase Two would come in April.

While he has no doubt the project would re-energize Chatham-Kent, Ward 3 Councillor Steve Pinsonneault said he worries it’s not financially feasible. Pinsonneault entered an unsuccessful motion asking to refer the request for the due diligence study to the next council term.

“I think once we commit $2 million in due diligence for this project, the train’s going to leave the station with no return,” he said. “There is no possible way this community can afford $125 million. Unless someone tells me there’s money coming from somewhere else, it’s not possible, even in stages.”

As a result, Pinsonneault put forward a motion to push back deciding on the recommendations until after the next council takes office later this year. Pinsonneault’s motion failed 4-13.

Chatham-Kent Chief Financial Officer Gord Quinton said while there are currently no direct grant programs to assist with the project at the provincial or federal level, he will not rule out the possibility down the line.

Mayor Darrin Canniff echoed the statement, adding he’s also optimistic about working with upper levels of government.

“I’ve been in extensive conversations with MPPs and discussions with anyone and everyone at senior levels of government that we’re looking for grants. We will be exploring all those options on how to fund this,” he said.

McAllister said the work being done with the $2 million would not be a waste. He said it would help inform future councils on decisions regarding municipal assets.

“You’re going to have a feasibility study with regard to the need for an entertainment complex and an arena, a better handle on the costs of consolidating municipal facilities, and future reporting on the costs of maintaining our existing assets. It’s certainly not lost value in terms of money that will be spent as part of this due diligence,” he said.

Additionally, council designated “Imagine Chatham-Kent” as a priority project due to its “alignment with council’s strategic term priorities and various previously approved plans, policies and strategies.”

According to staff, the designation is intended to transparently identify the project as warranting further resources necessary to determine, in a responsible and timely manner, its overall value for taxpayer dollars, business validity, and to ensure final decisions regarding scope reflect the current and future needs of the community.

The designation does not imply any final decision on projects was made. Additional reports will be brought to council when the project is at a stage where approval decisions can be considered.

“We’re not going to leave any rock unturned,” Canniff said.

Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News