Around town, the rumour mill is in overdrive with talk that the The District has agreed to or is on the verge of agreeing to a lease with prominent Squamish developer to house city hall offices for the next 20 to 40 years at about $1 million per year.
Council is going to rent its city hall – “really, you’re not joking,” do you ask? We are not joking, or it appears they are intent on doing so. In the 2022-2026 Financial Plan, Council has included an annual charge to the Squamish taxpayer of $980,000 – that is estimated to be a 2.4% tax increase every year to rent space to house new city hall offices in a privately owned commercial building. And this is being done without any ability for the taxpayer to formally object because Council has derived a way to circumvent the Local government Act’s Alternative Approval Process (the ability for the taxpayer to collect names in a counter-petition to stop an action) by charging the taxpayer for what is for “all intent and purpose” – a capital project, but they are going to circumvent the intent of the legislation, by charging this $1 million to annual operating.
We do need a new city hall.
Few would question the need for an upgrade to city hall. The building, like Brennan Park, has not seen any substantial upgrade in decades. Maintenance costs are high, and things among our growing staff must be getting tight. To address this, Council has chosen to abandon their current city hall and rent space in what we understand is a “yet to be built” commercial building. Just pay the rent and move into new offices; open the doors at 8:30 am and lock them at 4:30 pm. We believe this simply replicates the old model of city hall as a collection of offices and meeting rooms; it is a model that perpetuates the anachronistic view of city hall; a place to pay your taxes and get your dog tags. One thing that COVID has demonstrated is that our previous notion of centralized offices should be subject to serious review and reconsideration. District of Squamish did an amazing job during the COVID-19 pandemic of taking many of the functions of municipal hall online. What the pandemic also highlighted was our human need for meaningful community gathering spaces that allow for consequential interaction between citizens, and citizens with its government, and how a lack of this connection is detrimental to civil society. And if given the opportunity to be reimagined, a city hall can bring together community-driven synergies and financial wins that can be relevant and inspiring well into the future.
But that is only part of the story.
This Council has a particularly unique opportunity at the moment that rarely presents itself. We have a chance to provide the community with extensive services and efficiencies that are not currently available, nor have they been in the past. This is an opportunity to engage and partner with other community organizations that are also in need of new facilities, and with whom we have an overlapping interest in the provision of public services. It is also an opportunity to bring to the downtown a gathering place that is welcoming, vibrant, and safe; a public space that encourages people to come to do business and participate in community. This is the perfect moment to create a vision of a place that is not solely a set of closed-off offices and meeting rooms but is rather a community hub designed to bring people together and inspire partnerships and connections.
A recent letter from School District #48 Board of Trustees outlines a golden opportunity. It describes the school board’s desire to partner with the District of Squamish to build a community facility that brings the District, the school board, and perhaps other governmental and non-governmental agencies together under one roof to provide better services and opportunities while at the same time reducing the cost of capital construction and ongoing operational expenses. The school board owns two large parcels of land in the downtown close to city hall; one has their bus storage and maintenance facility and the other houses their administrative offices – which are older than the city hall offices. What an incredible opportunity. Can you imagine a joint city hall/school district administrative office building combining various government and NGO agencies with amenities such as a museum, library and coffee shop and large meeting space? We envision a Community Hub where people come to connect, communicate and do business – it provides community gathering place for an event like farmers markets within a covered atrium perhaps that can be opened with the changing weather to be widely accessible no matter the time of day or the weather, a place that to connect in a meaningful way government in all forms and its citizens…but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Our goal is not to predetermine what this community hub could be but to encourage Council to wholeheartedly seize this opportunity. This is the time to collaborate to create a vision for a downtown focal point that brings our community together. We have the opportunity to do much more than acquire office space on a lease that after 10, 20, perhaps 40 years there is nothing except the need for a new lease or a new building. That is $1 million a year down the drain. So the decision by Council to go it alone and rent space to house their own offices, will essentially kill the ability to build a joint facility that could save the taxpayers money in the long run. So we question whether the District is taking the best route for the long-term good of Squamish.
Is a lease a good deal?
In the recent public open house regarding the upcoming capital costs, the District made the case that leasing a new city hall was the best way to preserve the District borrowing capacity so that there would be funds available to upgrade Brennan Park. This may be the case. But from their own documents, there was only a 0.2% difference in the cost to taxpayers between leasing and owning – a small saving that may mean a big difference when the lease runs out. The District says they if they build a new city hall and library, renovations to Brennan Park would not go ahead. Okay, but why use the excuse of building a new library and pit that against the renovations to Brennan park? With the School Board now stating they want to investigate a joint facility, why is the lease being pushed so hard and so quickly? Who is actually doing the pushing? There are examples all around B.C. and the world where city halls are part of a joint facility. In fact, many cities now have a policy that they will no longer build stand lone public facilities and have mandated that new and renovated public buildings must be part of a joint facility.
The school district brings money to the venture, and by bringing in the private sector through leasing “public space” or selling air rights, the facility may not even cost the taxpayer anything! Has the District investigated private public partnerships? If so, show the public. Has there been a full cost accounting undertaken on various options? We don’t know. If the intent of the Council is to solely save taxpayers money, why did they not plan to add additional stories to their Public Works Yard Administration Building they are now working on and put city hall or at least some departments on land we, the taxpayer own? The City Hall response is that to do this, they would have to approve a height variance. Well at a public meeting, staff stated that the plans show for the current building is already over height, so a variance will be required in any event. And who approves height variances anyway? COVID-19 has shown that everything city hall provides can be obtained online, so is it essential to locate a city hall in the downtown that is already crowded and parking is at a premium?
What happens in 20 years?
If this deal goes ahead, it will not be for a short couple of years. In 20 years, the District of Squamish taxpayers are down $20 million, and the developer has a building to do what it wants. Do they hold out for a higher rent if the District is not in a position to finance another city hall? Does Squamish start from scratch on a new city hall? Who knows, but we could have built up at least $20 million in equity in a new city hall/community hub that we would own and not have to burden taxpayers. That 0.2% savings on taxes may not look like such a good deal then. If you had the opportunity to own your own home rather than renting and having the knowledge that you are building equity, would you decide to rent or own? Was this option publicly tendered to other landowners and developers in Squamish? Maybe we missed it, but such a substantial outlay of taxpayers funds should go to public tender to get the best deal for taxpayers. What does the Local Government Act require and what does it say about providing a benefit to one business over another?
Where is the vision?
Our goals are not to predetermine what a joint venture could be, instead to encourage Council to wholeheartedly seize this opportunity. This is a time to collaborate in the creation of a vision for a downtown focal point that brings our community together. We have the opportunity to do much more than acquire office space on a lease that after 10, 20, perhaps 40 years there is nothing except the need for a new lease or a new building. That is $1 million a year down the drain or, in this case, into a developer’s pocket. Why can’t we do better for a Squamish city hall than just a few floors in an office building? Many cities and towns around the world are reinventing their city; why can’t we?
Why not a joint facility?
The school board also has aging offices (actually, their buildings are older than the city hall buildings) and could use a new, refreshed location as they manage a growing body of students. They have indicated that they are willing and interested in discussing a joint facility. Other organizations in the arts and social services could also use new offices. The synergy in closely working together could yield benefits for Squamish. Undoubtedly, staff and council have (hopefully) worked hard on this for a new city hall. Maybe it is a great deal. Maybe there are great answers to all of these questions. But the secrecy and topline numbers do raise questions that need to be answered.
Why so secret?
It seems strange that there is so much chatter around town coming from various connected citizens, with nothing official from the District. Information from various sources is quite concrete and tells the same story that the lease is a “done deal”. But the District has officially said little….which only, of course, feeds the rumour mill further. Who is the done deal with? How does Squamish avoid a conflict of interest? A common complaint by developers is that approvals for projects takes far too long. Here in Squamish, we are seeing an unprecedented number of new high-density residential developments being built. A not unfamiliar question that we have heard is who gets bumped up the approval queue and who doesn’t. If the lease is a “done deal;” is the lease with a building that is currently built or is it going to be in a building that is yet to be built? Will the District be sole-sourcing the desired 30,000 square feet with a particular developer or will the District send the lease details out for public tender? If the District is in negotiations with one developer, what do you think the other developers will react? Can we have a public consultation process? Maybe there will be a public consultation process, but so far, that dreaded rumour mill is in overdrive, saying this is close to a done deal. All we ask is for Council to take a breath, shelve the lease (as it is not intended to be charged till 2025ish), involve the potential equity partners, and publicly engage the public in a visioning process of what a joint venture community hub could bring to our downtown. We know the public can be engaged and we know that when the district wants to, they can do a great job of engaging the public.
Can Squamish get out of this deal?
This is a council in the last year of its term. Who knows what will happen in the fall municipal elections. However, the prospect of a lease agreement being signed, sealed and delivered and locking in the next 5-10 councils to a city hall deal and $1 million a year expenditure of taxpayer dollars may not be everyones idea of money well spent. But we may be stuck with it if a deal is pushed through in the last few months of this Council’s term.
Will there be a release clause in the deal?
In the absence of information, there is speculation and the town is rabid with speculation, and it will only grow as the civic elections draw closer. Selling the public on the need for new city offices to house district employees is a tough sell, when there are so many other high priority public safety needs, such as a second bridge out of downtown, enhanced hospital facilities, dike repairs. The list is a long one and it grows every year. Signing a lease is easy but it locks out the ability of the taxpayer to say no. If Council is so sure this is the right way to go, then put it on a ballot at the upcoming election. If the taxpayer supports it, then great, but without a vision, how can Council or the taxpayer make an informed decision? And frankly, who benefits from the lease?
On the other hand, we don’t argue that there is a need to provide safe and healthy working conditions for our hard-working civic employees, but the school district staff also need safe and healthy working conditions. What we can’t understand is why the District won’t embrace this opportunity and bring people together to create a facility that brings people and organizations together? Squamish has a history of being creative and of doing innovative partnerships well; only has to look at Centrepoint and Under One roof as recent proof.
Why not engage our community in a positive manner, rather than the current silence that only heightens speculation?
We don’t have the answers, but we do have many questions and we do see a unique opportunity that few communities have in their lifetimes. The stars are aligning, and we see this as a possible new beginning, not the end of the world. Remember, there is only one taxpayer, regardless of whether the money is for city hall or the school district. Why not make money go as far as they possibly can and inspire tremendous added value to the community in the doing?