By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The inspiring vision to create a community hub and entertainment complex in downtown Chatham has officially moved forward.
At its June 13 meeting, council gave a unanimous thumbs up to begin public consultation on the ambitious Imagine Chatham-Kent proposal.
Administration has been tasked with preparing a report to examine all aspects of the project – including costs – allowing the municipality to conduct its due diligence on the plan to re-invent the Downtown Chatham Centre.
The first phase of the multi-million-dollar project would see the Chatham-Kent Civic Centre, the Chatham Public Library and the Chatham Cultural Centre relocated to the empty Sears building.
The second phase would see the construction of a 4,000-seat entertainment complex with an ice surface built on the existing footprint of the mall.
A third privately funded phase would see hotel and possibly residential space developed as well, as a nod to the original King Street streetscape.
According to Bruce McAllister, general manager of community development, the report due back Aug. 8 will examine the business case for Imagine Chatham-Kent, including procuring certified appraisals on current assets and assessing the cost of fixing up the aging buildings.
A video outlining the private-public partnership was played before council with comments from the DCC’s owners.
Referred to as the “community partners group,” it includes experienced developers Rob Myers, Don Tetrault, Ron Nydam, Pete and Jessica Tsirimbis and Jim Bullock.
The group’s video message was upbeat and enthusiastic – similar to the response from councillors who spoke to the plan.
South Kent Coun. Anthony Ceccacci said it’s “absolutely impossible” to watch the video without getting goosebumps.
He thanked the community partners and the municipal team that have been working together on the effort.
“You can already hear the buzz in the community,” Ceccacci said. “I can’t really put into words the excitement that I have to even be discussing this and how lucky we are as a community.”
Chatham Coun. Michael Bondy said he shared Ceccacci’s enthusiasm for a number of reasons.
“This is a proven team. The experience that runs through this group should make everybody confident and give everybody a lot of comfort that this is going to happen,” Bondy said. “The entire community of Chatham-Kent will benefit from this. We have an opportunity as council and as a community as a whole to take advantage of the generosity of this group.”
Bondy said the project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create “one of the coolest downtowns” in Southern Ontario.
He went on to say he’s heard from a lot of people in the community and has heard “zero complaints” and “that’s a first.”
Wallaceburg Coun. Carmen McGregor also praised the project.
“I’m very impressed with this and moving forward with this,” McGregor said, adding she’s never seen a “better opportunity” for a public-private partnership.
McGregor said Imagine Chatham-Kent will be an “anchor” for the entire municipality, adding there will be countless spin off opportunities.
West Kent Coun. Mark Authier expressed his support but also questioned how the costs will be handled, with McAllister explaining that the details about conveyance of the properties will be outlined in the coming report.
The promenade and parking tower are included as part of the initial community hub, McAllister added.
Going forward, the municipality will dedicate space on its website to Imagine Chatham-Kent with the Let’s Talk CK tool until July 15, allowing the public to comment and ask questions.
There is a section for frequently asked questions, and the video is also available for viewing.
The $50,000 report will be paid for out of the municipality’s strategic reserves.
The DCC was purchased by the community partners group in the spring of 2021. In June 2021, council directed administration to examine ways of consolidating municipal services and how the mall could be used for that purpose.