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City fund dovetails well with needs of woodworkers group: Deputy-mayor

Barrie Region Innovation Exchange (BRIX) wants to lease space for a woodworking shop on Maple Avenue
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A community woodworkers group is looking for a $300,000 one-time grant from the city to carve out a little piece of paradise in downtown Barrie. 

The Barrie Region Innovation Exchange (BRIX) — a not-for-profit organization formerly known as the Barrie Community Woodshop — has requested the funding to open a woodshop in leased space at 59 Maple Ave.

At last night's general committee meeting, councillors were initially reticent about the proposal, citing reservations about sinking money into a building the city does not own on a shorter-term lease.

Coun. Sergio Morales said he was "having trouble" with the size of the request. Other councillors shared similar concerns. 

That was until Deputy Mayor Barry Ward hit the nail on the head by reminding councillors that the community benefit reserve, which is cash set aside from Alectra dividends and where the funding would come from, is tailormade to the BRIX request. 

"The whole reason (that fund) was set up was to help groups," said Ward, who called the proposal a "perfect example" of what that money should go toward.

"This is exactly the type of thing it was set up for," he added. "It's supposed to be things that benefit the community. I don't know why people are so concerned about the money when we're actually spending it, in this case, on exactly what that fund was set up to do: to have spin-off benefits in the community." 

According to the BRIX board of directors, several community groups have indicated interest in sharing the Maple Avenue space for things such as rehearsals and meetings. In their proposal, they also included several letters of support from community groups, including Georgian College, Redwood Park Communities and the Down Syndrome Society of Simcoe County.

The city funding would allow BRIX to lease space as soon as next month that will provide for a ‘light’ workshop, with a funding model for capital investment for a complete woodshop build-out within the next two years.

The downtown site is considered a "turn-key" location with significant frontage on Maple Avenue and which includes opportunity for expansion of a full woodshop into an adjacent unit.

Base capital costs to outfit a woodshop with the appropriate ventilation, etc., are estimated at between $590,000 to $753,000. The BRIX group believes they can raise about half of that with support from community partners.

To secure the city funding, BRIX will have to commit to a lease no less than 10 years in length and also hire a commercial realtor. The group would also have to do outside fundraising. 

The group, which has been without a permanent location for several months, has been pining for new space for some time. 

In December 2016, the former Barrie Community Woodshop Program closed its doors in Victoria Village, where it had been operating since 2004, after an inspection revealed building and fire code violations, particularly related to the dust collection and ventilation systems.

BRIX, which has more than 120 members and growing, was commended for what it brings to the community. 

"It's more than a couple guys and a couple gals cutting wood," Morales said. "There's a social-isolation prevention aspect to it and I think there's an entrepreneurial aspect to it."

Many woodshop members are retirees and seniors, with regular participation from people with physical disabilities, according to a city staff report. Members have contributed more than 4,500 volunteer hours and built special projects for numerous  groups such as the women’s shelter, Canadian Mental Health Association, curling club, Scouts, Terry Fox Run, as well as elementary schools and the Barrie Public Library.

The 59 Maple location has served many purposes over the years, including youth facility, community wellness centre and, going even further back, as the downtown Woolworths. 

"This space has had a few different iterations, but there's a portion of it still that has still, if you walk through it, got the carpet and the lighting from Woolworths," said Mayor Jeff Lehman.

"That's how long it's been vacant in our downtown," the mayor added. "That's a long time."

Coun. Keenan Aylwin, who represents the downtown, said the BRIX project could "unlock a lot of potential at that site."

As part of the proposal, the city would also increase its BRIX subsidy to $35,000 in 2020 and $20,000 in 2021, but if the $300,000 one-time grant funding is approved, there would be no further subsidy between 2022 to 2032. 

The matter still requires final approval by city council next week.

Raymond Bowe

About the Author: Raymond Bowe

Raymond is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting from Simcoe County since 2000
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