Things got a little tense at the May 23 council meeting. Up for discussion was whether to proceed with a request for proposal on the best use for the Waterloo Summit Centre for the Environment – especially now that the University of Waterloo has left the building.
On the table was whether to move forward with a recommendation from the Town’s General Committee to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for the use of the building or to postpone the RFP until Town staff has had an opportunity to further discuss a proposal by Accelerate Muskoka. The organization has been eyeing the building for some time as it firms up its plan to turn the space into an innovation hub and raise seed funding for companies involved in the development of water and climate change technologies. They’re proposing to cover all the operating costs as well as some capital and the lease hold improvement costs associated with the building, have the ability to develop additional building sites on the property as an “innovation park,” while entering into a long-term lease agreement with the Town in exchange for 10 per cent of the company’s proposed clean tech seed fund.
Accelerate Muskoka’s CEO and President Colin Yates, who has served as the education lead with the University of Waterloo at the Waterloo Summit Centre for the Environment, was before council along with Accelerate Muskoka team members Dave Smith, Paul Thomas and Pat Dubé.
This is going to be very exciting for Canada going forward as climate change and water technologies are going to be very interesting and [a]lucrative investment area in the next ten years. We want to have the Town of Huntsville as a partner and to demonstrate this goodwill we’re going to provide ten per cent carried interest in the clean tech fund, based on the success of the clean tech fund, which could be very lucrative.Accelerate Muskoka President Colin Yates to huntsville council
The group indicated that they’d be prepared to take over the building as early as June 1, 2017 and attract like-minded entrepreneurs while also providing an education component. They also assured council that behind the initiative was a very successful team of business people and said there may be an appetite to purchase the building outright in the future.
Kari Lambe, the Town’s Director of Community Services told council that the University of Waterloo cleared out of the third floor of the building last week. “However the second floor is fully rented and the third floor will be fully rented and occupied over the next week. We do have contracts in place over the full summer season with a post-secondary school related to education and co-operative opportunities with resorts in the area. So they are staying in that building and we have some very good occupancy rates currently in place.”
Councillor Dan Armour asked Accelerate Muskoka whether they would respect the agreements currently in place at the building or whether they’d expect an empty building to which Dave Smith said they would work with the Town and its current agreements.
Council discussed whether to continue talks with Accelerate Musoka or issue a request for proposals to see what other interested parties might come up with.Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano noted that the General Committee has looked at the options before it and made a recommendation to move forward with an RFP. She reminded council that when the Town issued a similar RFP in 2015, Accelerate Muskoka was the only one who responded. “We’ve been basically waiting to see what happens for nearly two years. Things change and it seems now that things have changed to the degree that there may be other interests out there.” She said based on General Committee’s recommendation to go out for an RFP in April, people are expecting it. “So I am concerned with tabling it now,” she said.
Councillor Nancy Alcock agreed with Terziano and said people are expecting an RFP and she would feel “uncomfortable tabling it.”
Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison noted that tabling meant simply putting it off to the next meeting, if something amenable to council could not be worked out with Accelerate Muskoka. “I think it’s worth at least having a discussion about Accelerate Muskoka and the position that they’re in now.”
Armour agreed, saying he’d hate to miss an opportunity and suggested further discussions could take place. Councillor Bob Stone said he wants to see the RFP go forward and suggested that Accelerate Muskoka could also submit to the RFP.
Let’s just get all of the information. Isn’t that what we do? Get all the information so that we can make the best decision for the taxpayer. Councillor Bob Stone
Councillor Jason FitzGerald said council has a valid offer on the table, and added “I’m sure that we can come to an agreement with them.”
Terziano said the proposal is not a great deal for the Town.
Sure the vision is great, it’s exciting, there might be money down the road but let’s face it, we’re not the Silicon Valley so I don’t think we could all run to the bank and start depositing huge amounts of money. This proposal right now takes away operating costs which are actually less than the revenue we’re taking in… I would never vote in favour of this one that’s on the table right now. Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano
Aitchison asked Terziano through what lens she was looking for a return for the taxpayer. “How big a cheque we could cash or… like what’s success in your mind for dealing with that building?”
“It’s not what success in my mind is, I’m just commenting on the financial section of this,” responded Terziano.”I don’t think it’s a good deal and what I’m saying is there’s a resolution on the table to go out for an RFP to see if there’s a better deal. That’s all I want to do is to see if there’s a better deal.”
Alcock said that while the project sounds very exciting, Accelerate Muskoka has become a more prominent option than she thought. “I missed the point where we said ‘it’s yours, we’ll run with you,’ and that’s the way I’m hearing it tonight. I didn’t hear that when we voted on going for an RFP.”
Aitchison noted that if talks with Accelerate Muskoka don’t pan out, there is nothing stopping the municipality from issuing an RFP a month later. “We’ve got a building that the Federal government paid $10 million to build for us and yup it has cost us a bit of money, there’s no question about that, but I guarantee you every community in Canada the size of this town would love to have an asset like that – the leverage as bait to try to get something going on in the town.”
Councillor Det Shumacher said he liked the idea of partnering with Accelerate Muskoka and was in favour of giving them a chance.
“You should know as well that as the mayor I have met with a number of different groups that are interested in the building and had great discussions with a lot of them. And some of them are great ideas and some of them aren’t such great ideas, but I’ve met with lots of different folks,” Aitchison told council.
In the end, a majority of council voted in favour of continuing discussions with Accelerate Muskoka before issuing an RFP.
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