North Huron eyes theatre, lounge as new council chamber options
BY DENNY SCOTT
Despite two councillors saying they didn’t want to leave the existing town hall chambers, council directed staff to investigate renovating the North Huron Wescast Community Complex to potentially house a new, permanent council chambers.
While Director of Public Works and Facilities Jamie McCarthy presented the report, saying that increased staffing needs required the use of the existing town hall chambers, it was Clerk Carson Lamb who explained that the entire plan went back several years to when staff brought up a need for more office space.
McCarthy presented council with four options for a new space, including significant renovations to existing building stock, expanding the existing town hall to the former Wingham Armouries site behind it, renting or leasing council chambers in another structure or purchasing a new building to permanently accommodate council chambers. As far as which buildings could be considered for renovations, McCarthy suggested the North Huron Wescast Community Complex, specifically the Hot
Stove Lounge, or the former museum directly opposite the existing town hall.
Councillor Chris Palmer said he was frustrated that a status quo wasn’t considered, adding he was frustrated that council had “been kicked to the curb.”
“Those are our council chambers, period,” he said.
Palmer said he would share the chambers with cubicles if that was necessary, but felt the status quo should be maintained as the cheapest option.
McCarthy said status quo wasn’t entertained because putting council back into the chambers alongside the staff that have been using it due to COVID-19 wasn’t an option.
“With COVID restrictions, and recognizing appropriate distance, having staff cubicles or desks will eat up space along the perimeter or side of the chamber,” she said. “We won’t be able to meet distancing requirements.”
McCarthy went on to say that, during a brief period between waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, council saw that there wasn’t enough room for staff and the public to be in the chambers.
She said it would be an option to move staff out of the space, but new space was needed either for the staff or for council.
Lamb said the issue didn’t just pertain to the pandemic as, in 2019 during budget deliberations, council put aside funds for an office space investigation. He also said that funding council had received for record-keeping upgrades required a large, open space like the council chambers for equipment, further necessitating the move.
While Councillor Paul Heffer said he preferred the idea of the status quo, he could understand the situation that staff were in, so instead of pushing to take back council chambers, he instead said he would favour the option of either renting or buying a new space.
“We have to use our own buildings,” he said, adding he would prefer short-term solutions until council could tackle this during the 2022 budget deliberations.
He also said a short-term solution would allow staff and council to review both existing space the municipality has and new space that may open up, citing office space that could be available in the former Wingham train station, which may become a new home for the North Huron Museum.
Lamb said the short-term solution was the Town Hall Theatre above the existing council chambers.
“The township owns the facility,” he said. “Council can locate there as long as they see fit. There is no concern for shorter-term meetings if council wants to go back to in-person meetings.” (Later in the meeting, council would indeed vote to resume in-person meetings in August in the Town Hall Theatre.)
Lamb said council could investigate further options by changing the parameters of the search, saying he was looking for structures that would provide ample internet infrastructure for streaming the meetings. He said by not broadcasting council meetings, sites like the meeting room at the Knights of Columbus Hall could be considered.
Both Councillor Kevin Falconer and Palmer commented the report didn’t contain enough information for council to make a decision.
Palmer wanted to see estimated prices for each option to have an apples-to-apples comparison of the options, while Falconer said he wanted to see facts and figures related to square footage as another pandemic or another wave of COVID-19 could hit.
Reeve Bernie Bailey said he was “dead set” against expanding the town hall, instead suggesting renovating the township’s museum.
He said that, during his last session of council, the site was renovated with new heating ducts and furnaces and said the lower floor would provide ample room for a meeting space. Staff said that renovating any part of the building would require the entire building to be renovated and brought up to accessibility standards, which could prove prohibitively costly.
Staff also said that the Hot Stove Lounge would require significant renovations, as well as an expansion into the existing parking area of the community centre to be able to host the council chambers.
McCarthy said the benefit of that space, however, was that it’s already accessible and has washroom facilities.
Bailey asked for staff to look at the Hot Stove Lounge and the Town Hall Theatre, as well as the museum, however Palmer was against the theatre, saying he felt the stairs to the stage were dangerous and the bathrooms were too far away during council meetings.
Council didn’t follow Bailey’s recommendation, instead passing an eventual motion to only look at the price of renovating the Hot Stove Lounge. Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip, who made the motion, said the museum wasn’t feasible and the Town Hall Theatre was a known quantity: council could meet there permanently if councillors wanted, and it didn’t require staff time to determine that.
Bailey voted against the motion, after noting several times that council had asked for more information on the options, then eventually decided on a single course of action.
TOWN HALL THEATRE GREEN ROOM
As part of the discussion, council members, including Councillors Anita van Hittersum and Heffer, asked if the Town Hall Theatre could still use the existing chambers as a green room for performances.
McCarthy said that using the room as a green room or dressing room wouldn’t likely be a problem as it's an open concept, but didn’t provide a definitive answer.
Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip felt the issue wasn’t one council needed to worry about, as it was a discussion between the theatre’s volunteer organization and municipal staff.