When will Chatham-Kent council decide on the future home of the brain centre of municipal operations?
Bruce McAllister, general manager of development services, said the Imagine Chatham-Kent issue is slated to return to council sometime in early 2024.
In October, council sent administration off to explore two possibilities, staying put, or moving the Civic Centre, Chatham Library and Chatham-Kent Museum operations into the Sears building in the Downtown Chatham Centre. Both options come with significant price tags.
Staying put would cost an estimated $37 million in renovations, according to administration. And that, McAllister said, does not include the cost of renting a temporary location and moving Civic Centre staff off site during the work.
He said that had not been considered at this point, adding that option was not the “current direction of council, so these exploratory calculations haven’t been made.
“If council gives us this direction in the future, we will work to identify a timeframe, location for staff, and associated costs,” he said.
Rob Myers, one of the owners of the DCC, said he estimates the cost to relocate staff during the extensive renovations could have a price tag “well in excess” of $1 million, and thinks staff would be displaced for upwards of two years.
Moving operations into the former Sears comes with a price tag of an estimated $53 million. However, factoring the value of the library building and the Civic Centre, properties that administration estimated in October would fetch about $9.3 million, then the disparity between patching up the Civic Centre and moving into a fully renovated Sears building is about $6 million.
I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Myers and Don Tetrault, two of the owners of the Downtown Chatham Centre. They, along with Jessica Myers, Ron Nydham and Jim Bullock, purchased the DCC in early 2022 and developed a concept, Imagine Chatham-Kent, with the idea to see the municipality consolidate Civic Centre, museum and library operations under one roof in the old Sears location.
The developers have long stated they aren’t doing this for the money, but rather because they think it makes good sense for the municipality in the long run.
Myers reiterated what he has said publicly in the past: He is not involved in the Imagine Chatham-Kent project to get rich.
“I don’t make a living here. I employ a lot of people here,” the face of RM-Sotheby’s said. “But I’m not trying to make money here. I said that in public at the council meeting. I’m happy to donate any profit I make to the museum.”
Tetrault said by the municipality moving into the Sears building, the area around King and Fifth streets would continue its rejuvenation. And when the Civic Centre is transformed, the west end of the downtown would see new life as well.
Myers said a move to the Sears building also solves the lack of space at the library and the museum.
“Our current library and the expansion plans for it have been discussed for years, but we’ve seen for a long time nothing has happened,” he said. “Currently our C-K Museum that should be displaying C-K’s agricultural history, native heritage and a host of other historical issues cannot since there is simply no space currently to have any impactful exhibition areas to do so.”
He added that by placing the library and museum into a space with municipal operations, added parking and sharing of meeting spaces are a couple of areas that would benefit all three elements, and lead to cost savings.
Myers said to address the desires of expansion at the current library footprint on Queen Street would come with a $20 million price tag, and there isn’t space on the property to make it happen.
There are a number of unanswered questions for some people. For example, should council choose to shift operations away from the Civic Centre, one question that comes up immediately is where would the fire station located on the south side of the Civic Centre end up?
McAllister said that would be handled in the upcoming fire master plan.
“It will determine the optimal location for the fire hall; Fire Hall 1 would stay where it is until a more suitable location is identified and available for use,” he said.
One thing that I believe many people are having an issue with is trying to picture how the municipality will fit the library, the museum and municipal operations from the Civic Centre all into the Sears building. They say it doesn’t have the room.
However McAllister gave us the tale of the tape.
The Sears building has 100,000 square feet of space, he said.
To put that into perspective, the Civic Centre (43,500 sq. ft.), the Chatham Library (22.969 sq. ft.) and the Cultural Centre (18,980 sq. ft., not including the Kiwanis Theatre) occupy a combined 85,440 sq. ft.
In other words, there’s nearly 15,000 sq. ft. in room for the library and the museum to grow in the Sears building.
The DCC owners are in the process of planning around the Sears building. They recently re-signed tenant Goodlife Fitness to a 10-year lease, and hope to ink other businesses as well. However, with the unknown of what will transpire at the Sears end of the facility, it has slowed them down.
“We’re ready to go. It’s a great thing for this town. I really believe it,” Myers said of a move by the municipality into Sears.
He added one thing the DCC owners will not go for is turning the location into a homeless shelter, something that was mentioned in a recent letter to the editor to The Voice, calling the suggestion “foolish.”