Non-profits want old hospital to be community hub

After the town decided in September to do nothing with the old Niagara-on-the-Lake hospital, a non-profit group has offered to assume the operating costs of the building so community groups can continue using it as a communal space.

Members of the Niagara Creative Cultural Community Hub, a collaborative group of non-profit organizations, pitched council on Feb. 28 about the benefits of using the space as a shared facility for community groups.

They also asked the town to renew the leases of the existing renters in the building.

Council made no decision on the proposal but directed town staff to prepare a report on the operating costs of the old building.

However, councillors did agree to explore a short-term lease renewal with the current tenants – but the group has a much bigger long-term vision for the facility.

Its plan also includes a multi-million dollar renovation of the building.

Members of the non-profit group include Plenty Canada, the Shaw Festival, the Yellow Door Theatre Project and Royal Oak Community School, to name a few.

“The Niagara hub is not asking for funding for this particular venture,” Julia Murray, Royal Oak's head of school, told council.

She said they have already secured $2 million for the project from a donor and they have the means to fundraise more.

Royal Oak is among those now renting space in the building.

“The hub would like to assume all operating and financial responsibilities for the building while the town continues to own the land and the asset for future use,” she added.

Robin Ridesic, owner of the Exchange Brewery, spoke about the usefulness of the hospital as a community space.

“It is the last zoned community facility property that could be renovated to meet the needs of current small to midsize community non-profits,” she said.

Community use properties are those zoned to enrich the community. They can be used as public parks, schools, health care services and recreational facilities, among other things.

“Properties that are zoned community use are not just about their physical spaces, but they are gathering and social spaces,” Ridesic said.

“We’ve actually lost five facility community properties in Old Town alone,” she added.

These include the Rand Estate, the old community centre on Platoff Street, Parliament Oak school, St. Vincent de Paul, and the lawn bowling greens formerly on Johnson Street, she said.

Tim Jennings, executive director of the Shaw Festival, also spoke in favour of the proposal.

“We’re very excited about the idea of seeing a space like this developed here in town,” he said.

Jennings said there is a real need for a space like this because NOTL has the highest number of non-profit workers of any town of similar size in Canada.

Karyll Justo, an early childhood educator at Royal Oak, told council she wants to open a nursery school in the old hospital.

She said there is a definite need for one in town, as the waiting list for the expanded Niagara Nursery School has 223 names on it.

Tim Johnson, a senior adviser to the Indigenous advocacy organization Plenty Canada, said the hub would help smaller non-profits collaborate and work together.

He added it would help charities to “create new artistic works” and “educational programs” if they had a place to work together and “cross-fertilize.”

The group also hopes to retrofit the hospital into a net zero building as part of its renovation.

“It sounds terrific. We need it to be successful,” Coun. Gary Burroughs said

When Burroughs asked if they had a budget for the project, Ridesic gave no specific numbers, but cited maintenance issues and “extensive work that needs to be done, to make it a reality.”

“This is a multi-million dollar project,” she said.

Coun. Sandra O’Connor suggested the town prioritize a long-term vision for the hospital as part of its strategic plan, but her suggestion was defeated on a 5-4 vote.

Evan Loree, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report