C-K council opens door for a move to former Sears building

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(Image courtesy Sarah Schofield/The Chatham Voice)

11-5 vote in favour of $2.95M purchase

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Imagine Chatham-Kent community hub project has taken a big step forward.

At its Jan. 15 meeting, before a packed council chamber, C-K council approved the purchase of the former Sears building at the Downtown Chatham Centre in an 11-5 vote.

Potentially, if the plan is found to be feasible, Chatham-Kent will move services from the Civic Centre to the site, as well as revamp space for a new library and museum.

The purchase price, from mall owners listed as 100 King Street CK Holdings Inc. is $2.95 million, with the deal closing Jan. 31.

Numerous deputations at Monday’s meeting spoke out out against the purchase. Among them were former Chatham-Kent–Leamington MPP Rick Nicholls and several Kent Federation of Agriculture leaders who advised council the idea is financially irresponsible, when so many rural infrastructure needs go unmet.

A number of the speakers chastised previous councils for neglecting to repair the Civic Centre over the years, thereby allowing it to deteriorate into a state will take an estimated $37 million to fix.

Nicholls said the Civic Centre is Chatham-Kent’s “home” and if your house needs repair, you fix it.

Others said there are too many unknowns when it comes to the project’s costs; others alluded to so-called backroom deals; and some said the library and museum boards had been excluded from the process.

However, even though the sale was given the green light Monday, it doesn’t mean the project is a done deal. Included in the legal agreement between the two parties are negotiated clauses that allow either the municipality or the developers to withdraw from the agreement.

The terms include a buy-back provision for CK Holdings to repurchase the property at the same purchase price within 18 to 24 months, in the event the municipality nixes the Imagine C-K development.

There’s also an option to purchase and first right of refusal, giving the mall owners the ability to buy the building back if the municipality doesn’t proceed after 18 months, or if Chatham-Kent receives a third party offer within five years of buying the Sears building.

Chatham-Kent will not be purchasing the parking garage, but will have use of 175 parking spaces.

Chatham Coun. Brock McGregor, who spoke in favour of the purchase, said the buy-back provision provides the municipality with some security.

“This is one decision point, not the only decision point,” McGregor told council, noting there’s a “cost to saying no.” He explained that putting off Civic Centre renovations have seen costs balloon from $13 million in 2018 to the current $37 million.

As outlined by administration, the costs for the Imagine C-K development – including the selling both the library and Civic Centre buildings for around $10 million – would end up costing the municipality $6 million for a new facility.

McGregor said that bringing all of the services under one roof for $6 million in a new space will allow for expanded programming

“When we look at all the options before us, this is the most financially responsible route to take,” he said. “We know we need more information and we’re going to get it and we’ll do this responsibly.”

West Kent Coun. Melissa Harrigan agreed.

“We’re still working though this process,” Harrigan said, adding the buy-back clause allows Chatham-Kent to do some “deeper exploring” on the matter, while providing the taxpayer with some insurance if the development proves to be too expensive.

Harrigan also wanted to “quell any rumours about backdoor deals” with the current purchase.

“I believe the process has been open and transparent,” she said, noting it’s “disheartening” when leaders “even suggest” open policies aren’t being followed.

Mayor Darrin Canniff, a strong supporter of the Imagine C-K community hub, said the development will be a draw and create a “wow” factor.

“There’s value added to looking at this,” Canniff said, noting the over the next few months, administration will be able to come up with concrete numbers to base a final decision on.

Chatham Coun. Marjorie Crew told council she’s in full support of the new development.

“I think that Chatham-Kent is a place to invest and if we can invest in it, let’s stop asking other people to come and invest,” Crew said.

East Kent Coun. Steve Pinsonneault said he doesn’t think the Imagine C-K project will revitalize Chatham’s downtown.

“We’re spending money on a building we haven’t done our due diligence on,” he said, adding he’s spoken with many constituents who are “irate” the municipality would buy the building without knowing all the facts.

South Kent Coun. Trevor Thompson also said he couldn’t support buying the Sears building, based on the response he’s received from the community.

A detailed motion by Chatham Coun. Alysson Storey calling for full financial transparency and accountability prior to the sale ended up being withdrawn following a complicated procedure. An attempt by Storey to bring the motion forward – as it originally appeared on the agenda following the sale motion – was turned down by council. The councillor said she will be bringing back a revised motion on the matter at the Feb. 5 meeting.

In her comments, Storey said she’d like to put the $6 million net cost of the project number to bed.

“With all due respect, I don’t think it’s a fair number to be used in the public domain,” she said.

“That number has never been directly proven,” she told council, as the amount the future sale of the library and Civic Centre will bring in cannot be predicted.

A second motion pertaining to the Imagine C-K development was also approved by council. It authorized administration to move forward to complete the detailed concept design phase for the new hub. The $166,098 contract will go to Nustadia Recreation Inc. is to be funded through the Building Lifecycle Reserve.

Council also authorized administration to hire a project manager for three years to support the design and construction of the hub. The $396,000 cost will also be paid for through the Building Lifecycle Reserve.

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