Decision on Norfolk Inn funding deferred

An artist’s conception of what the former Norfolk Inn in downtown Simcoe would look like once social housing provider Indwell spends $7.5 million in a top-to-bottom renovation. Norfolk council deferred a request on June 18 to commit $5 million over 20 years to the project. Indwell/Contributed graphic

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Norfolk County is under pressure to make a substantial financial commitment to the redevelopment of the former Norfolk Inn in downtown Simcoe.

This week, Norfolk council deferred a decision on the request from social housing provider Indwell for $5 million over 20 years.

A majority on council felt this would be difficult to sell to the community without something tangible in return.

With the June 18 vote, council has bought time to examine other ways to partner with Indwell aside from a straight-up money commitment.

Some on council suggested an ownership stake would be a good place to start as a means of protecting the taxpayers’ interest.

“At the end, we don’t own the building,” Delhi Coun. Mike Columbus said. “I don’t consider that to be reasonable.”

One way or another, Norfolk will have to partner with Indwell if it hopes to realize the benefits of renovating this troubled property.

Indwell needs major federal funding to complete the $7.5 million project. Under a new formula, the Trudeau government has made social housing grants conditional on municipal participation.

Graham Cubitt, Indwell’s director of projects and development, said Indwell will lose project funding worth 40 percent if Norfolk doesn’t sign on. And without federal funding, Cubitt says there is no project.

“We’re glad there was a deferral of the decision tonight as opposed to an outright rejection,” he said. “Housing is a local issue. The return on the local housing investment can be huge.”

Several years ago, Indwell converted the former Hambleton Hall in Simcoe into a supervised social housing project. Indwell intends to do the same with the sprawling Norfolk Inn on Norfolk Street South.

At the June 18 meeting, Indwell’s regional manager Leah Logan announced that the 41 tenants Indwell inherited when it bought the Norfolk Inn last year have been re-housed elsewhere, clearing the way for contractors to get to work. The tenants – many of whom struggle with disability, mental health and addiction issues — were living in substandard conditions at the time of the purchase.

When the $7.5-million project is complete, Indwell will provide 32 social housing units plus commercial space at street level. The project will create 40 construction jobs and five full-time supervisory positions.

Council members want to explore options other than a 20-year, $5- million grant.

Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin wants to know if Ottawa’s National Housing Strategy will accept in-kind support. Examples might be tax incentives or the waiver of permit and development fees.

“I want to throw my support behind these people,” Martin said. “I value them. But we are not the most financially healthy municipality around.”

“Bonusing” occurs when governments provide special incentives to encourage investment and development. This is not permitted in Ontario under provincial law.

Nevertheless, Windham Coun. Chris Van Paassen would like to find a way to waive Indwell’s taxes on the Norfolk Inn because, “if they don’t fix it, we won’t be collecting taxes off it anyway.”

“I don’t just want to throw this away by voting it down,” Van Paassen said, adding new grant programs may materialize over the summer now that Canadians are heading into a federal election.

Norfolk staff shared a number of tantalizing arguments for a county commitment.

Treasurer James Johnson told council renovating the Norfolk Inn will make it a much more valuable property. As such, it would pay higher property taxes than it does now. The renovation will also improve the mood and atmosphere in this part of town, encouraging additional investments in nearby properties.

For her part, Heidy Van Dyk, Haldimand and Norfolk’s director of social services and housing, says every dollar spent on safe, affordable housing produces substantial savings in health-care costs, law enforcement and in mental health and addiction services.

Over 20 years, Van Dyk pegged this savings to taxpayers at $14 million.

Port Rowan Coun. Tom Masschaele is comfortable with the deferral. He said it wouldn’t “really incentivize anyone to dig any deeper on this” if council passed the request as presented.

 

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