“Which one would you prefer?” asks the London Free Press in its daily poll. “A Downtown Fanshawe Campus?” Or “A Performing Arts Centre?”
That’s an easy one for an opera lover. A performing arts centre, for sure! No more trips to Toronto or Detroit or New York. Actually, I haven’t done the Metropolitan Opera thing. But I might!
And what would I do with a Downtown Fanshawe Campus? I no longer work at Fanshawe College, I am not a student there, nor do I have children or grandchildren enrolled there. It’s possible I have a more distant relative pursuing studies there, but really, what’s in it for me?
A lot, actually. And a lot for other residents of London, young or old, who care about the heart of their city, the downtown. Without a heart, how does a city survive?
I lived in downtown London while attending Teachers’ College (now Althouse) in the early 1960s and again a few years later as an elementary school teacher. I lived in an apartment on Waterloo Street just north of Dundas. The library was right around the corner, and it was easy walking distance to lots of shopping: Kingsmill’s, Eaton’s, Simpson’s, Kresge’s. Restaurants and movie theatres. Whatever you wanted or needed was close by. I had a car because I was doing some itinerant teaching, but aside from getting to work, I didn’t really need it.
That’s all gone now, or nearly. Only Kingsmill’s is left for retail and only for a few more days or weeks. First came the shopping malls, and then the big box stores. Right now there are moves to open up more retail near the 401. The retail core of the city was gutted.
We have seen the devastation downtown. For the past 20 years, a lot of time and attention has been directed to finding a way to undo the damage. How to get more feet on the street so that people don’t find it so scary? What about an entertainment centre? How do you get a grocery store down there? How do you make people want to live there? How do you put the heart back into your city?
The city has undertaken a number of initiatives, waiving development charges and phasing in taxes. It has built a new library, a market, an arena. It’s working. More apartments and condominiums are being built for an increasing number of residents, both retirees and young professionals. But it’s not enough. We need not only to attract people downtown, we need to bring them there.
That’s what Peter Devlin, president of Fanshawe College, pointed out as he quoted Jane Jacobs on the matter. The project he was promoting would bring 1,600 new young people downtown every day and ensure that a London institution, Kingsmill’s Department Store, would remain a part of London.
Not as a store, of course. But Fanshawe was proposing to purchase Kingsmill’s and repurpose it as an expansion of its Digital and Performing Arts Centre which had opened across the street earlier this year. When completed, it would bring 2,000 students downtown in a campus equivalent in size to that of one of Western’s affiliated colleges.
But doing so would require an additional 3 storeys of classroom space and an extra $10 million from the city. Fanshawe College was prepared to put in $46.2 million into the enterprise and, by the existing 2010 agreement with the city, it already had $10 million from that source. So it was asking for an additional $1 million per year for the next 10 years to cover the remaining $10 million required for the project. For that extra money, the city would have double the number of students and staff originally envisioned.
Lest you think that it was an over the top sales pitch, I hasten to point out that none other than Martin Hayward, city treasurer and a tight-fisted one at that, was in whole-hearted support. This was doable. The plan was solid, the benefits to the city would be enormous, and there was a protection clause in the agreement in case things went awry.
Planning director John Fleming agreed. It would be a great boost to the downtown and he should know. He works just down the street from the new Fanshawe Campus on Dundas and the impact on the street has been wonderful. The energy, the vibrancy of creative young people is palpable even in these few months. It has been great for the market and will encourage new retailers to locate and invest in the area. He was bullish on the concept and the proposal.
Judy Bryant was supportive. She put the motion on the floor to endorse the staff recommendation and then spoke glowingly about it. This was what was needed to compete with other communities. It would result in spin-off assessment growth. It would complement the investment the city had already made in the downtown. She thanked the Kingsmills for their commitment to the community.
Harold Usher too agreed. Pretty much everything had been said that needed to be, but he was going to talk anyway. He had seen the decline of the downtown and its more recent resurgence. There was only one other place, however, that could hold such a proposal and that was the Bell Building where he had previously worked. Of course, it was much newer. And, although he didn’t mention this, owned by Shmuel Farhi. Farhi rarely sells; he like to buy and rent out his property, but he is not always an easy landlord. So Kingsmill’s was perfect. It has heritage.
Then Joe Swan weighed in. It had been a busy week for him. Although he had declared an interest in the fate of the Performing Arts Centre proposal dealt with by the committee he chairs on the previous day, he had followed the debate closely. After all, his organization, Orchestra London, is to all intents and purposes the driving force behind Music London which is beating the drum for the Celebration Centre, a $164 million dollar complex which would cost the city a lot of money, both in capital and ongoing operating costs.
Music London had submitted its plan to council a couple of months ago and council had referred it to staff and Novita, the leading consultant in these matters, for review and feedback. Apparently, neither were impressed; they had wanted a real business plan with a real market analysis and apparently they didn’t get it. So it was back to the drawing board.
And here was Fanshawe College tapping into dollars that Music London really needed to move forward. So it’s not surprising that Swan was not thrilled with what he had heard.
Still, he wanted the Fanshawe College representatives to know that he valued the contribution of Fanshawe and its students to the community. After all, the college is in his ward. But the whole project was just too expensive and could harm the businesses in the east end. What about them, if the students moved downtown? He was not reassured by the observation that this relocation would open up badly needed spaces for new programs.
But what really galled Swan was that Fanshawe College had no commitment to this project from the provincial government and education is a provincial responsibility. It was a good point, but the reality is that Fanshawe College could pursue its expansion anywhere at much less cost. The benefit of locating in the downtown is to the city. Besides, it would be approaching the province but the province would, in all likelihood, be investing in program infrastructure, not heritage preservation or downtown renewal.
It’s interesting to note that Music London had been instructed through the previous day’s staff recommendation to go after provincial and federal funding without a specific commitment from the city. The city would decide if and how much to put into the kitty when it had a real business plan it could support.
On top of everything else, Fanshawe College’s proposal didn’t have to clear the hurdle of going before Swan’s committee. It got straight to Corporate Services, chaired by the new mayor, Joni Baechler, the candidate not supported by Swan. As Devlin, Hayward and the mayor all pointed out, this was not a new proposal which had to go through the economic development process adopted by council, it was simply an amendment to an existing agreement; it had already cleared all the criteria. No doubt, that rankled. Not to mention the limited economic development dollars that it would gobble up.
Bud Polhill hated to disagree with Swan, but he had had second thoughts. He now realized that this expansion wouldn’t simply provide another building, it would be something different. He didn’t think businesses in the east would be harmed, but the lack of provincial involvement still worried him. Maybe they should change the commitment to “up to $10 million” in case the province came through.
The difficulty, Devlin told him, was that the monies that the province would provide would be for program infrastructure, for stuff that would replace the programs that would be relocated, not a direct investment in a downtown building. Tying provincial support to renovating and expanding a building would hamper efforts to get provincial funding. Although he didn’t get it, Polhill didn’t pursue his idea. Instead, he reminded the former mayor, Anne Marie DeCicco Best who was in attendance with the Fanshawe delegation, that he had given her a book 14 years ago which addressed this very issue of bringing institutions downtown.
Matt Brown and Paul Hubert are members of the Corporate Services Committee but they were interested and in attendance. Both were highly supportive of the proposal before the committee members. This is what had worked in many other cities—Brantford, Windsor, Toronto, Orangeville—you name it, it works. It fit perfectly with the Downtown Master Plan, with the Transportation Master Plan, with the London Plan. It was the natural and necessary next step, a huge opportunity. It would bring people and jobs downtown. There would be niche retail and economic spinoffs.
Finally, her worship the mayor added a few words. It had all been said, she would just respond to a couple of objections that had been raised. The city had spent millions in bringing in industrial development, had serviced industrial land, had provided support to residential and institutional development. And, the current proposal would fit in well with a performing arts centre, she noted. It would bring a major industry downtown.
The vote was 4 to 1 in support of the staff recommendation. Swan voted against it.
I didn’t. When faced with the choice, my vote goes to the Downtown Campus. It's a better investment of taxpayers' money.
But when a viable proposal comes forward for a performing arts centre, I’ll vote for that too. Just show me the business plan. And the money.