Council will consider this building on Neva Road as a possible new municipal hall. (Lexi Bainas/Gazette file)

Don’t choose hall ‘on a whim’, town Lake Cowichan CAO warns

Councils have had chances for other buildings before but have always reverted to the current site

Ever since Mayor Rod Peters dropped the bombshell at the all-candidates meeting that the former Kingdom Hall might be a new municipal hall, talk around Lake Cowichan has been buzzing.

Now, as the new council takes its first steps together, the Town of Lake Cowichan CAO is urging the members to “carefully review all its options” and not to make a decision “on a whim”.

Councillors and office staff are to take a look around this possible new site early next week.

Joe Fernandez, in a report to council’s finance and administration committee that was considered at the Nov. 13 committee meeting, gave some history and some advice comparing the present hall and the empty building on Neva Road.

“As a new council assumes office, we are approaching another fork in the road with respect to the status of the municipal hall. We have been at this juncture before. Discussion has been held on building a municipal hall in combination with other facilities at the current library site. The potential purchase of the old Trails End restaurant and later the United Church building were all given consideration as a location for the municipal hall. Each time, councils before always veered back to the location of the current municipal hall.

Earlier, he explained, “the municipal hall was accommodated in two separate structures, one that housed the council chambers and the other, the administration building that was shared with the fire department.”

Note: back when the Mildred Child building housed the town’s public library, part of the municipal hall actually on South Shore Road, that now houses the municipal office and councillors’ room, was actually used for the council chambers.

But, since 2004, according to Fernandez, “The construction of the new firehall resulted in space that was previously utilized by the fire department for meetings and training being freed up for use by council as its council chamber. The Mildred Child annex was left to house the building inspector and the bylaw officer. The Town, to this point, has not had the luxury of having a municipal hall that was built to accommodate a proper council chamber to serve its public. Public meetings and sometimes an occasional public hearing have had to be held elsewhere to accommodate larger crowds.

“The current municipal premises — the municipal hall and the Mildred Child annex — were and are in a major state of disrepair that require upgrades and there is no adequate room in the council chamber to satisfy the particular needs of council which includes the format of the council chamber and improved acoustics and room to accommodate a crowd.

“The old fire hall bays and the municipal hall which are conjoined are now subject to serious leaks and drafts and require major upgrades if current health and safety standards are to be met. The heat pump is nearing the end of its life expectancy.

“Prior to the current state of affairs, council in late 2004 invited BC Buildings Corporation to undertake an assessment of the needs of the Town which at the time propsed a combined facility that was intended to house a municipal administrative centre together with the library and health centre. At the request of the Town of Lake Cowichan on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005, BCBC was asked to consider the addition of a community theatre to the proposed Community Services Centre.

“In March 2006, the total project cost was estimated by BCBC at $5,873,672. Note this was an estimate provided in 2006 dollars and the project was proposed at the site now occupied by the current library. Not surprisingly, the project and the proposed location was not met with enthusiasm by council or the other stakeholders.

“Council all along favoured the renovation of the existing facilities at 39 South Shore Rd. With that the services of an architectural firm were retained. Plans to retrofit the municipal hall facility to current building standards while at the same time providing council a council chamber that adequately serves the public interest were drawn up. This involved engineering, seismic, and architectural assessments and proposed solutions. In the meantime, WorkSafe BC mandated that hazardous materials assessments had to be conducted on all pre-1990 structures owned and operated by the town. In excess of $200,000 in expenses has been incurred thus far on the municipal hall project going all the way back to 2004. Note: the financial penalties for undertaking work on pre-1990 buildings without benefit of a hazardous materials assessment can be exorbitant, as evidenced by our previous experience.”

In addition, Fernandez pointed out, “The Town is responsible for contracting with firms that meet the legislated and legal requirements to protect the health and safety of workers employed on a project site. This means work must be done by trained and qualified workers that meet legislated requirements. This certainly rules out municipal workers,” he said.

Council recently learned it couldn’t get a hoped-for grant to help rebuild the hall but decided it was time to go ahead and get on with something because the situation was becoming intolerable for those who had to work in it.

To start that job, the Town has arranged with the school district for use of part of Stanley Gordon School as a stop-gap office.

“The project would have been phased with council using the meeting room at the fire hall on a temporary basis,” Fernandez said.

But now, there’s this new idea about the former Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall on Neva Road.

“It is only prudent to investigate this but any decision must take into account what is best for the town in the long term. It would be best to consider all of the ramifications of either of the two choices before making a decision that is not to be regretted later,” he said.

The purchase price for the Kingdom Hall on Neva Road is $369,000, Fernandez said, “plus an additional sum would be required to upgrade the facility. A hazardous materials assessment must also be undertaken and remediation must be handled by people qualified to do so. If the intent is to have the premises that satisfy the basic needs of the municipality would it not be sensible to expend those funds needed to acquire and renovate the Kingdom Hall by simply reassigning those funds to update both the municipal hall and Mildred Child annex. The latter two buildings appear to have more space than the Kingdom Hall.

“The minimum renovation involving the cladding of the two buildings and re-roofing plus update of the heat pump will allow the Town to update its buildings so we may at a minimum continue with its revitalization program that it has embarked on. The council chamber can be modified with just a new seating arrangement so we may avoid the demolition of the currently municipal facilities so we add another park for our asset management purposes. Note: Council established a Municipal Building reserve fund in 2000 for the very purpose of having funds to deal with capital improvements on the municipal building.”

Therefore Fernandez recommended that council move cautiously and review its options carefully before making its choice, considering “the best location for the municipal hall, how best to manage its fire alarm system, avoid increasing our assets that provide no returns, and ‘that any decision not be made on a whim’.”

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