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Library Square redevelopment clears final Council hurdle on “historic” 4–3 vote

August 28, 2020   ·   0 Comments

After decades of debate, Aurora’s plan for the redevelopment of Library Square moved forward Tuesday night on a “historic” vote of 4 – 3.

Council awarded the tender for the construction of Library Square, including an expansive addition to the Church Street School, improvements to the Aurora Public Library, a bridge connecting the two buildings and a public gathering space below, to Chandos Construction in the amount of $41 million, bringing the total project budget to $51,939,500.

The bulk of this price tag will be funded by municipal reserves – including Aurora’s Hydro Funds – along with a long-term debenture of up to $12.9 million to be repaid over a period of up to 20 years. Council also signed off on the creation of a Budget Control Task Force to oversee the construction costs.

“Today is truly a historic moment for Aurora,” said Councillor Michael Thompson, who made the motion for a task force. “Since the current Library was built in 2001, the topic of Library Square has been openly and repeatedly discussed by multiple Councils. For the 10 years I have been on Council, the revitalization of the downtown core and the vision for Library Square has been a constant item for discussion and a key objective of our Strategic Plan. It has been a long road to get here, there have been many starts and stops and starts again, but I am proud of this Council and the term before us…Council may not have always agreed on the when and the how, but we did [on] why Library Square is important.”

Few individuals at Town Hall on Tuesday night questioned the importance of Library Square as a whole, but there were many stops and starts throughout the evening on whether the plan ultimately approved by Council was the right one – and at the right time.

Before the start of the meeting, nearly two dozen community members, including some past members of Council, gathered to protest the plan as presented, questioning the long-term financial impacts the project might have on the community, particularly spending reserve funds in a time of economic uncertainty stemming from COVID-19.

These concerns were echoed inside Council Chambers by Councillors Wendy Gaertner, John Gallo and Rachel Gilliland, each of whom encouraged Council to press “pause” and wait until the fall for a pending budget update.

“There is a lot of uncertainty with an investment this large,” said Councillor Gilliland, contending there is additional uncertainty on how spaces like what is planned for Library Square will be used in a post-COVID world. “It is prudent to consider what any financial situation might look like as a result of COVID-19 and [in] these uncertain times I am concerned not only personally but professionally and, most importantly, as an elected official. How we socialize might look different for a rather long time.

“I am not saying shelve this. I am saying, why not buy some time? We have 120 days (until the tender bid expires). We have a report coming back to Council in October. The director has said it is no problem, we can have something to give us that visual. Why not take advantage of that time while we have it on our side?”

For Councillor Gaertner, the Library Square decision was “the most critical decision Council has ever made” and there is too much uncertainty to move forward at this time.

“The residents trust us to run the Town efficiently and to build a secure future for them,” she said. “I don’t think spending a thousand dollars per resident on one project represents that. In this time of COVID, this time of financial uncertainty when so many residents, businesses, are struggling, we can’t take any chances. We need to be on the right side of history. Organizations, corporations, municipalities are following the path of caution. Let’s do the same. Our future financial health may depend on it.

“This is not the right time, this is not the right project, [and] Council needs to say no.”

Councillor Gallo agreed more time was needed to address financial and operational uncertainty. In stating his case, Councillor Gallo raised a number of procedural concerns with how things have progressed, including the use of Hydro Funds.

A resolution before Council last year, he said, stated that the final operating plan needed to come before Council before final construction on Library Square could be approved.

“The resolution says that the draft operating plan be approved and finalized prior to the approval of the construction tender,” he said. “Am I living in a dream world? I clearly know what ‘prior’ means and we don’t have that. It is very clear; it is black and white. Listen, do as you will [but] you have been put on notice that moving forward on this you are making a serious error.”

Staff contended that nothing will change operationally from what is before Council with the exception of who is delivering the service, but Councillor Gallo questioned whether enough notice had been given to the public on Council’s intention to use the Hydro Funds for Library Square.

He said he believed previous resolutions before Council were contingent on the success of Aurora’s ultimately unsuccessful $31 million grant application to the Provincial and Federal Governments to put towards Library Square.

“It is very clear: we approved the strategies subject to the success of the grant application. It is my view that we do not have a Council resolution that is authorizing us to spend the Hydro funds. It is clear the funding strategies for Library Square, which authorize the use of the Hydro Funds, was subject to the grant application’s success. We were unsuccessful and therefore a new meeting with proper notice needs to happen before we continue.

“You should be aware that there are many people out there that – I don’t want to say this as some kind of a threat or something, but there is a lot of passion out there for this issue and they are well aware of what is happening. Now that they hear this, I wouldn’t be surprised if some legal action is taken.”

But staff and Council members alike insisted that Tuesday’s resolution followed previous motions and stated their case for forging forward.

“I have heard from many residents and businesses who are just as passionate as we are about this historic project, not just in its immediate economic impact in helping the local economy recover from the pandemic, but how this investment will act as a catalyst for future economic, social and cultural growth in Aurora,” said Councillor Sandra Humfryes. “This project represents sound public investment in our economy that will foster a renaissance for the downtown core.

“I have campaigned and been elected on the platform of taking meaningful action towards the revitalization of Library Square. Our downtown core has been in desperate need of significant capital investment for quite some time, but there has never been the right project or the political will to make it happen. For too long, little has been done to renew our downtown core. Despite the desperate need, the untold taxpayer dollars spent on report after report, from expensive consultant after expensive consultant, year after year, Council after Council and always the same result: ‘Let’s wait, let’s rethink, pause, don’t move ahead.’ No, I think the residents have been through enough, businesses have had enough, 20 years of inaction is long enough.”

For Councillor Thompson, Tuesday’s decision was a vote in favour of Aurora’s future.

“Library Square is very much about the future of our community,” he said. “We are not only building for today but also planning for tomorrow. Do we really need this? Absolutely. Today, Aurora’s population is 60,000 and we have been told by the Province through their growth plans to prepare and see our population rise to 76,000 by 2031 and 86,000 by 2041. The construction of the addition to Church Street School and the enhancements to the Library will help us meet the demands placed on our facilities, services and programs by the increase in population. Furthermore, the transformation of our parking area into a vibrant open square featuring an amphitheatre, skating, seating and other amenities will help strengthen this community and draw Aurorans from all four corners into our downtown.

“This is a long-anticipated project needed to revitalize our downtown. Downtowns are the heart of any town or city and having a healthy heart is essential to having a strong and thriving community. They serve as the engine for local economies and represent the image and character of a Town. Downtowns are unique in that they are typically the only neighbourhood that belongs to and is shared by everyone. While this may be true for many Canadian towns and cities, Aurora’s downtown has struggled. We have all seen the empty storefronts and the businesses come and go. Residents and entrepreneurs and others are investing their hard-earned dollars into their businesses and our community. They are trying to make a better life for themselves and in many cases add to the community by giving back. Now it is our turn to support them by making this investment in our downtown.”

Councillor Harold Kim’s position in favour of Library Square was also bolstered by looking into the future.

“People said, ‘Do we need a new meeting place where people can gather?’ or an arts centre,” he said. “We can debate that all night, but I think given the reports that we have seen over the last couple off years, we have [heard from the Library and Cultural Centre] that there is a need. Certainly we, as proxies for residents, and as Board of Directors of the Town Corporation, we have to think of the future, think of the vision for what Aurora can and would look like in the future…

“When this project is built, I hope there is some capacity so there is room to grow in this structure. That is what we, as leaders, have to consider. We’re building for tomorrow. I would submit that there has been a lot of consultation through this over the last several years and I am quite confident in the financial position of the Town of Aurora and I am confident that we have the means to pay for the project.”

As was Mayor Tom Mrakas, who said Council’s approval is “the exciting last step in a decades-long journey to translate ideas into action and realize a shared vision” for Aurora’s historic downtown core.

“Over the course of many years, thousands of residents, businesses and Council members have directly contributed to this shared vision and it is stronger for it,” he said. “Library Square has been a hot topic for decades and most certainly at every election cycle. Every member sitting around this table has discussed in length the revitalization of our downtown core, as have the members of many Councils before us. Why? Because we all recognize its importance.”

The Downtown Core, he added, is economic, social and cultural hub in the community but a lack of investment in it has resulted in a decline.

“The project is not just revitalizing our downtown core; it is a re-connection,” he said. “Re-establishing that connection is the key to rebuilding a vibrant local economy. It represents a significant investment in the revitalization of our downtown core, but importantly in Aurora as a whole, so we can realize Aurora’s potential to be a strong, vibrant locally-supported” economy and community. Building on the investments of the Library, the Armoury and Town Park, Library Square creates a destination for people to gather and businesses to locate and grow.

“Decades of delay has led to further decay. Our businesses and residents have made it clear they want and deserve more. We had a very competitive tendering process and received very cost-effective pricing due to many companies seeking projects to keep their people employed. Construction costs invariably rise each year. Delays today mean the project will cost more later. We cannot continue to ride the merry-go-round of indecision. The studies are done and we have a reasonable funding plan in place that recognizes our residents’ tax concerns and does not impact future tax rates. As we seek to recover from the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, it is clear our local economy needs investment now more than ever. Now is not the time for inaction. There has never been a better time to make this investment in our community.”

NEXT WEEK: The Library, Cultural Centre, Chamber of Commerce and members of the public state their cases.

By Brock Weir

(Pictured Above: Residents speak out against moving forward with Library Square outside Town Hall on Tuesday night)



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