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YMCA closes in on $2.5M commitment from county to build regional hub downtown

New regional hub project is slated to be built on the former Barrie Central Collegiate site in downtown Barrie

The YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka came to county council this week with open hands, and left pleased with the outcome.

County of Simcoe council heard a presentation during Tuesday's committee of the whole from the YMCA on their new regional hub project, which is slated to be built on the former Barrie Central Collegiate site in downtown Barrie.

The decision will still have to be ratified at the next county council meeting on Oct. 8.

While the conversation started with a funding request of council for $2.5 million, it veered toward discussions around the ethics of funding capital projects, what the county should and shouldn’t be putting tax dollars toward and the value youth programming can have when it comes to altering the life path of youth-at-risk.

“This building will be the hub for everything,” said YMCA chief executive officer Rob Armstrong. “Everything that happens in that building will support all the programs happening in the other buildings. Without this central building, we would be dysfunctional.”

The new building, planned to be built at Dunlop Street West and Bradford Street in Barrie, will be home to Simcoe County’s first standalone transitional housing unit for youth (planning for 20 beds), in partnership with Youth Haven.

It will also house Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre’s (RVH) cardiovascular rehabilitation program, offer an expanded youth/senior centre, aquatic centre, YMCA youth services (addressing employment, life skills, entrepreneurship, youth at risk), offer support for new Canadians through YMCA Immigrant Services, traditional health and fitness programming, community meeting spaces and a public café.

The projected budget for the hub is $36.5 million.

To pay for the project, $6 million will be coming from the sale of the current Barrie property, $18.5 million will come from federal, provincial and municipal governments and fundraising is expected to bring in $7 million ($3.5 million has already been raised).

This leaves the shortfall at $5 million.

At the table, some councillors shared concerns about the precedent it would set agreeing to help fund capital projects for non-profits, and worries that saying yes to the YMCA would start a landslide of non-profits coming to council chambers asking for money. They also shared concerns that funding for the project would overlap with funding they’ve provided for their own municipalities’ recreation programming.

“You don’t come at zero cost to the municipalities, because you are tax exempt,” said Ramara Township Mayor Basil Clarke. “Probably, based on our track record, we’ll probably waive the development charges as well. So, there is a cost of the YMCA to the locals, and we do support you.”

“However, as much as I respect what the YMCA does, I can’t support giving taxpayer money to a charity. We have to respect the services we run, and the services they run,” said Clarke.

“To me, this is more of a local issue, a Barrie issue,” said Bradford Deputy Mayor James Leduc. “I don’t see how Bradford residents, especially from the south, are even going to be able to get to this facility unless they drive themselves.”

“To me, this is a capital ask. Through your fundraising, your goal was $7 million, but maybe it should have been $12 million,” he added.

Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin shared concerns about being the first governing body to sign on with the project before the city, province or federal governments had agreed to provide the project with funding.

While Barrie city council hasn’t yet dealt with their funding ask for the project specifically at their table, Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman said Barrie city council has shown their support already through funding major infrastructure repairs to the site through the Kidd's Creek culvert replacement project, totalling about $8 million so far.

“If there’s any question about whether (Barrie) city council supports this project going forward, there shouldn’t be any question about that,” said Lehman. “This house should know that the city is already deeply committed to the development of the site.”

Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson talked about the YMCA branch in Collingwood, adding that one in four Collingwood residents use the services there.

Saunderson moved the motion to approve the funding to start discussion around the funding request.

“I’m very much in support of this recommendation,” he said. “We’re looking for collaboration and partnerships within our communities. $2.5 million of a $36.5 million request is about seven per cent. It’s a one-time investment.”

“This is also about services for youth and youth-at-risk. We know from our recent (homelessness) remuneration that youth homelessness is a critical rising issue in our communities. I believe this is the type of investment we should really be seizing. This will have a massive return for all of us,” he added, saying he sees the project as on a similar plane to the Second and High Street affordable housing units in Collingwood in that they are located in Collingwood, but serve residents county-wide.

Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke said he firmly believes the county shouldn’t be in the business of giving funding to capital recreation projects, especially for separated cities.

“If that were the case, we certainly would have been here when we started to build our $45 million MURF (multi-use recreation facility),” he said. “However, I’ve learned a lot about our YMCAs over the years... I know it helps some of our more marginalized citizens and youth at risk. I do believe this project is worthy of consideration.”

Oro-Medonte Township Deputy Mayor Scott Jermey offered a word of caution to the rural municipalities who think they don’t have a homelessness problem.

“For the rural municipalities, we also have to realize that if we don’t have a homeless problem, it’s because we’re essentially exporting them to the nearby cities. That’s where they end up, and they need services to protect them,” said Jermey.

Lehman brought some perspective to the conversation. He started by addressing the concerns of the county being the first funder out of the gate.

“We’ve seen time and time again that a local commitment leverages a provincial and federal commitment,” he said.

“What this is, it’s not a municipal recreation facility. What we’re talking about here is a standalone transitional housing unit for youth,” said Lehman. “We have youth from Bradford, Orillia or Midland who come to Barrie to seek services here. We’re here in the centre of the county and we do have the pressure on some of our services.”

Lehman agreed with Saunderson that the ask was relatively modest.

“In the world without a Y, where two thirds of the child-care system that we are responsible for in this house, is delivered by this organization. If they weren’t around and we were delivering that child-care system, we’d be spending a heck of a lot more than $2.5 million,” he said.

“Mr. Armstrong rightly defined the YMCA as a preventative organization. Whether it’s the opioid crisis or homelessness, the solutions to these problems are in prevention by delivering services to youth, newcomers or others who might fall through those gaps in the system,” said Lehman. “Who is going to take care of them? We are. So investing now is going to help us prevent the demand for those services.”

Leduc seemed taken by Lehman’s comments, and modified his point of view after listening to the conversation.

“Mayor Lehman’s impassioned plea has me bending and breaking,” said Leduc, to chuckles from council. “It’s absolutely the youth that we want to support. Sitting here listening to everything... what if we gave them a $5 million loan? We could close the gap, and it would be a win for everybody.”

Leduc planned to put an amendment on the floor, however the original recommendation to provide the $2.5 million to the YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka over four years for the regional hub project was passed first, which meant the amendment could not be considered.

After the meeting, Armstrong was overjoyed.

“It feels amazing. We’ve been working on this project for nine years,” he said.

Armstrong said that moving forward, plans are underway to come before Barrie city council in the fall, with plans to apply to federal and provincial governments around the same time. If all goes according to plan, the facility is planned to get shovels in the ground by the fall of 2020 and be open by the fall of 2022.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 12 years of experience to her role as reporter for Village Media, primarily covering Collingwood, County of Simcoe and education.
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