A trio of task forces could point to Barrie's future on affordable housing, a performing arts centre and the downtown market precinct.
Councillors gave initial approval to them Monday night.
“I think over the course of COVID, between the pandemic and some distractions, council I think has been pushed off of the agenda of moving our city forward and especially as we look forward to the end of COVID, and our economic recovery, I want to try and focus council on some of the issues that I feel are very important to the city,” Mayor Jeff Lehman said during a news conference Tuesday.
Each task force will report by the end of 2021 with specific plans.
One will have a plan for investments in the economy and in public spaces in the west end of downtown Barrie or the market precinct, the next a plan to construct a modern performing arts facility in the city core to replace Georgian Theatre and Fisher Auditorium, and the third a plan to co-ordinate Simcoe County, Barrie and charitable/not-for-profit housing projects and policies to aggressively expand the supply of affordable housing, with particular emphasis on addressing the hardest to house.
“These task forces are really the opportunity for council to collaborate with stakeholders in the community, the key organizations that are part of delivering these goals, to get things done,” Lehman said. “It’s not a strategy that’s meant to sit on a shelf, nor is it meant to start over. In many of these areas there’s been great work done and underway.”
The market precinct task force would be headed by Deputy Mayor Barry Ward, the performing arts centre task force by Coun. Jim Harris, and the affordable housing task force by Lehman. Each would be comprised of interested councillors, stakeholder organizations from the downtown, cultural and housing communities, and city staff.
Lehman said affordable housing is a high hill to climb.
“We are still not housing some of the hardest to house,” he said. “That’s why the focus on supportive housing that you saw from council around the budget (the modular housing project on Vespra Street). One of the focuses of this task force will be ending chronic homelessness in Barrie, which we can do.
“We just had the homelessness enumeration from the county (about 275 people in Barrie last year). We know the number of people that they found and talked with,” Lehman said. “We’ve understood better, I think over the last few years, what kind of services they need to help them with the root causes of the homelessness and this is a problem that we as a community can tackle.”
The performing arts task force will have to look at the big picture to fill an obvious void.
“I put this on myself and my colleagues on council. We didn’t have a real good plan for what was going to happen when Georgian Theatre went dark, and I think we heard that from our arts community,” Lehman said of the city cancelling its lease with Georgian Theatre. “The task force is about the permanent, long-term solution, which would be the construction of a performing arts centre.
“It was never to build something that we could bring in big acts from outside; it was always to support our local organizations by helping them grow their audiences. And that’s why we built the small (Five Points) theatre first," he added.
Council has established a theatre reserve, beginning in 2022, to be used for future theatre capital requirements, with an annual contribution of $2.5 million to be funded from the reinvestment reserve. This reserve is capped at $15 million.
The market precinct is an area bounded to the north by properties along the north side of Dunlop Street, to the east of Bayfield Street, to the south of Simcoe Street, and to the west by Bradford Street.
Plans are to transform the Barrie Transit Terminal on Maple Avenue into a permanent market and construct a new farmers’ market pavilion building. The entire area could be a hub for creative, cultural and community enterprises.
“I believe the market precinct will be transformed and what we need is a plan for economic and public space investments that can really assist in the revitalization of downtown,” Lehman said.
City council will consider final approval of the task forces motion at its March 22 meeting.
“I think by the end of the year we will have these three groups, including councillors, members of the community and city staff to bring us back exciting plans that we can use to really drive recovery as we come out of COVID in the later part of this year and look ahead to 2022,” Lehman said.
“Rather than the things that are distracting us, or pulling us off our agenda, and I think task forces are a good way to do that," he added. "They have a specific goal.”