The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority is moving its headquarters out of a series of heritage buildings it owns in the heart of Manotick, casting doubt on the future of the buildings, including the historic Watson's Mill.
The conservation authority move is being enabled by what seems like a heck of a deal from the city. Ottawa will provide land in a nearby nature park and lend the authority $5.6 million for its new building. The loan will ultimately be repaid from the conservation authority's operating levy, which is 90 per cent paid by the City of Ottawa. Despite that generosity, there is no guarantee the city will get the Manotick buildings. And if it does, it can't afford to operate them.
"The very future of Watson's Mill will be threatened by the pullout of the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority," says Councillor Jan Harder.
Watson's Mill and the surrounding heritage buildings define the nature of Manotick. If they sit empty, it will hurt the village and its businesses, says Harder. Nevertheless, she supports the deal to help the authority move to Beryl Gaffney Park. Councillor Glenn Brooks, who represents Manotick, says he wants to save the square as a tourist attraction, although he can't say just how that might be accomplished.
Despite what you can read on the authority's website, the park deal is not done yet, even though the authority plans to begin construction this summer. Council gave approval in principle last year. City staff have been trying to work out the details of the deal for 10 months. The original $5 million cost of the building has now inflated to $5.6 million and the authority wants the use of more land than originally proposed, the city says. The conservation authority also wants the city to sign off on the land and loan, without clarifying what will eventually happen to the buildings.
That just wouldn't make sense. What leverage would the city have left once it gave the authority what it wants?
The conservation authority has hired consultants to consider future uses of the buildings. The most significant is Watson's Mill, a working grist mill that a non-profit group operates as a museum with city support. The authority also owns the house of Manotick founder Moss Dickinson and its accompanying carriage house as well as a former bank and another house nearby. Combined they create Dickinson Square, a pleasant 19th-century hub for the village.
The consultants will report in June and are considering alternatives ranging from sale to the city, to lease or sale for commercial purposes. No doubt some would love to see the city pick up all the buildings and turn the Dickinson house into a museum, but its paltry museum budget just can't handle the additional cost. The conservation authority isn't offering to give the buildings away, and even if it did, they would be a future cost burden for the city.
One of the challenges with heritage buildings like the cluster in Manotick is to find new uses and owners who will maintain and respect them.
The conservation authority seemed an ideal owner in that respect.
The authority says it has simply outgrown its premises. In addition to four buildings it owns, it rents another three to house its 65-person staff. Spokesman Cliff Craig says it's a costly and ineffective way to work. The authority has estimated it can reduce annual operating costs by more than $100,000 by moving to a new building. The authority is expanding and intends a building to handle up to 90 staff.
The Gaffney Park building will meet federal green building standards and will be a model of how to dispose of waste and grey water. Being on the river is good for "corporate image and profile," Craig says.
The new conservation authority headquarters might be nice to have, but if the agency had to relocate to a strip mall in Bells Corners, who would really care? The only discernible value for the city in all this is the conservation authority's offer to provide public washrooms and perhaps an interpretation centre at its headquarters.
This will help develop the 96-acre park, although one might ask what's wrong with just having a trail along the river. People have a tendency to look at a natural area and determine which kinds of human uses could go there. What's wrong with leaving nature natural?
This whole deal is worth a lot more careful scrutiny than city councillors have given it so far. In effect, the city is being asked to exchange assets for -- at best -- nothing, or more likely for the liability of the historic Manotick buildings. The city is going out of its way to turn the conservation authority's problem into the Ottawa city taxpayers' problem. Don't we have enough already?
Contact Randall Denley at 596-3756 or by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
© The Ottawa Citizen 2006