Huntsville Council has agreed to issue a new request for proposal (RFP) for the use of the Waterloo Summit Centre for the Environment, and they’ll have to leave the details up to staff.
The issue has been divisive. Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison has been lobbying hard to continue talks with Accelerate Muskoka, which submitted a proposal two years ago when the Town issued an RFP for the building, but the proponent was unable to move forward with its plan. Councillors agreed to move forward with a new RFP at their General Committee meeting in April, but when that recommendation made its way to the May 23 regular council meeting the Mayor pushed to continue talks with Accelerate Muskoka. That seemed to raise a lot of eyebrows around the council table. (Read that story here.)
Since then, a letter was penned by the directors of Accelerate Muskoka stating that they would welcome competing under a new RFP. Council agreed to issue a new RFP at its June 26 meeting and councillors, including the Mayor, will have to remain at arms-length of how proposals are evaluated.
Under Huntsville’s procurement bylaw, councillors cannot engage in either the creation of an RFP or the evaluation of the proposals the municipality receives, unless those rules are suspended by a majority vote, like they were for the housing working group which chose Craig Developments Inc. as the winning bid for an affordable housing initiative at Sabrina Park. That group comprised Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison, Councillors Jason FitzGerald and Nancy Alcock, as well as citizens appointed by the Mayor, which included Jenn Adair, Shelly Raymond and Larry Ross. (Check Doppler for more on this story soon.)
Also at the June 26 council meeting, a presentation was made by Alastair Taylor, a Huntsville seasonal resident, and CEO and Founder of Śuruvāta Residential Wellness and Research Centre. He said the proponents of the addiction rehabilitation centre are hoping to locate the facility to the Waterloo building and with it would come high-paying jobs and spin-off benefits for surrounding businesses. They are expected to compete under a new RFP for the Waterloo building.
Staff will be charged with evaluating the proposals and a report is expected to make its way to the Town’s General Committee with its findings in September.
Council discusses objectives for the Waterloo building
“Through the procurement process there are restrictions on the involvement that council has with respect to the creating of the document and to evaluating the submission so our current Procurement Bylaw would restrict council from diving into that level of detail. Council’s role in providing direction to staff is to determine what perhaps the desire is,” Huntsville CAO Denise Corry told council as she asked for their objectives for the building.
“I think I’ve mentioned this to a few of you over the phone that this is a good discussion to have as it will help inform what the staff grade these proposals on,” said the Mayor, as he opened up the issue for discussion at Monday’s council meeting.
Councillors seemed to agree that ensuring the building is not a burden to the taxpayer is a good place to start. Words like innovation, job creation, sustainability, and proven track record were used around the table. Others, like Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison, also said it would be fitting to accept proposals for the building that would best fit with its original intent.
“I feel a sense of moral obligation to at least entertain ideas related to how we convinced the Federal taxpayer to give us that money in the first place,” said the Mayor. He also said that while the municipality has a responsibility to taxpayers, it also exists to serve the people of the community, enhance the community and make the people who live here successful. “While I think it’s important that we do those things without huge cost to the taxpayer, I would place a great deal of importance on the job creation, sustainable job creation and potential for new economic activity in our community.”
Councillor Det Schumacher added, “The building originally was intended for post-secondary and environmental issues in our area so that type of thing would interest me if somebody came forward that would give our local youth, or whoever, an opportunity to be involved in the growth of it, but the bottom line – it would have to be financially sustainable.”
Councillor Bob Stone had a different take. He said contrary to Shumacher’s stance, he did not think that the original intent should be considered when weighing the proposals the Town receives. “That ship’s sailed,” he said.
Aitchison asked whether Stone would give it any weight at all. “No I probably wouldn’t,” he responded, adding that revenue for the Town and the creation of permanent, full-time jobs are a priority for him. “I would weigh the financial criteria, certainly 30 per cent (out of 100 per cent) at the very least.”
There was also talk about the possibility of selling the building, but some, like Councillor Jason FitzGerald, pointed out that once it is sold to a business, council loses control over what goes in the building.
“I would simply answer you have to vet the business plan to its fullest extent and that’s the whole point of a business plan,” replied Stone.
Aitchison asked who would do the vetting of a business plan and when Councillor Stone volunteered, he said, “I’m sure that’s your fiduciary responsibility round this table,” to chuckles from some councillors. Aitchison also cautioned about looking at the mere financial aspect of a proposal. “If someone comes along and says I’ll give you $15 million for it but I plan to put a brothel in there. What are you going to do, Councillor Stone? Check the business plan out?”
Council got another chuckle when Councillor Jonathan Wiebe asked how the financial criteria would be weighed. Corry said the application with the highest consideration in that category would obviously be one that involves a zero cost to the municipality.
What about those offering to pay “a kick-back per year in addition?” asked Wiebe.
The Mayor interjected with, “Don’t use those words in this place,” to laughter from some of those present.
Corry summarized what she had heard from council so far and told councillors to put their trust in municipal staff, who would be carefully formulating the weighting criteria used to evaluate the merits of each proposal. She said staff would also be formulating the RFP, which would hopefully be issued by end of week. She suggested that the RFP remain open for two months in order to ensure that parties interested have adequate time to submit their proposals. Corry said staff would then evaluate the proposals and compile a report, again expected to make its way to General Committee in September, if all goes according to plan.
See a related story, including some of the history of the building here: University of Waterloo building proving to be one of this council’s most contentious issues, so far.
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