Municipality makes plans to sell former Westario building

Uncertainty for Lake Huron Learning Collaborative when lease ends in December


By Barb McKay


The future of the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative is up in the air after council voted to sell the former Westario building.


The building at 385 Queen Street is home to a number of tenants, many of whom fall under the umbrella of the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative (LHLC). Tenants include Contact North, VPI, Adult Learning and, most recently Fanshawe College, which provide continued learning and professional development programs and services.


The Kincardine Chamber of Commerce also works out of an office in the building and the Kinetic Knights Robotics Team 781 uses the garage bays. The Municipality of Kincardine uses the building for storage and for its emergency operations centre.


The LHLC has occupied the south end Queen Street building since 2011. The collaborative evolved out of an idea for a Centre for Energy Excellence as part of the hosting agreement between the Municipality of Kincardine and OPG for the proposed project to store Ontario’s low- and intermediate-level waste in a deep geologic repository. OPG agreed to cover the lease ($50,000 annually) but put its hosting payments to Kincardine on hold late in 2015 as it awaited a decision from the federal government on the DGR project. However, OPG provided funds to cover lease payments in 2016 and 2017.


Council has pondered the future of the building for the past couple of years and signed one-year leases with the LHLC for 2017 and 2018. The current lease will expire on Dec. 31.


During last Wednesday’s council meeting, municipal staff provided three options to deal with the building.


“Council has said twice that it wants to terminate the lease and has been renewing on a short-term basis, and that creates uncertainty for the tenants and it is not ideal for the municipality either,” said CAO Sharon Chambers.


She said the municipality is moving forward with OPG to form a working group to explore a centre of excellence and added that there needs to be a permanent solution to provide continued education in the community. Selling the former Westario building would relieve the municipality of ongoing maintenance costs and provide revenue, Chambers noted, but it is important to maintain educational programs and services. She pointed out that Bruce Power’s Major Component Replacement project is at risk of a workforce shortage because of a lack of workforce development.


Chambers said one of the municipality’s concerns regarding the LHLC is that it does not have information about who is included in the lease agreement under the LHLC and who is part of the collaborative’s sub-lease.


“We don’t have anything formal about who the tenants are and that needs to be rectified,” she said.


Council was told it could continue to lease a portion of the building to the LHLC, sell the building on the open market to the highest bidder or, as staff prefer, sell the building through a Request for Proposals (RFP) process to an individual or business that would continue to provide vocational training, post-secondary education and employment services.


Council members were in favour of selling the building through an RFP process that would require the continuation of educational, training and employment services.


“I think we can retain a lot of what the Lake Huron Learning Collaborative has done and build on it without the capital costs,” Mayor Anne Eadie said. “No solution is ever perfect, but this is a chance to meet the needs of our community for workforce development for the benefit of economic development in our community.”


Larry Kraemer, one of the founders of the LHLC and a member of the board of directors, addressed council to make a case for continuing on with the lease agreement. He said the board has been trying to establish formal communication with council to clear up any misinformation.


“We started from scratch,” he said. “We basically started a college from nothing.”


Kraemer said the LHLC has never been late with its lease payments and has never asked for assistance from the municipality.


“Our finances have grown and grown and we reported to you last year that we were nearly sustainable.”


Kraemer said enrolment in programs is increasing and last year the LHLC had revenues of $90,000 and $96,000 in expenses. The LHLC also has $100,000 in reserves, which could cover any shortfalls for years to come.


He added that the collaborative is a Kincardine-built organization that aligns with the municipality’s goals and its strategic plan.


“This is real,” he said. “It provides training to people at no cost to the municipality. We have good reserves and we have a good track record.”


“This is not a debate about the merits of the learning collaborative – the learning collaborative has proven itself,” Deputy Mayor Jacqueline Faubert said, but added that the municipality needs to look at its surplus buildings and how they can be used in the future.


“I think the Lake Huron Learning Centre has done a fabulous job,” Councillor Maureen Couture said. “It’s the physical ownership of the building that is the issue. I would like to continue the concept with an option that does not include the municipality owning the building.”


Council voted unanimously to sell the building through an RFP process after the LHLC lease ends at the end the year and to assist the robotics team in finding a new space.