Ontario New Democratic Party leader Marit Stiles heard Friday that the old Niagara-on-the-Lake Hospital is the perfect gateway location to host a creative, cultural and community hub.
The leader of the official opposition was in town with local MPP Wayne Gates for a meeting with proponents of the concept. The pair spent the morning in Niagara Falls at an event hosted by the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce and met with NOTL Local columnist Owen Bjorgan and others in Grimsby later that afternoon to discuss Bill 23’s impact on Ontario’s Greenbelt.
The NOTL sit-down was held in a classroom at Royal Oak Community School, which has operated out of the building since 2017.
In early March, Royal Oak board member Robin Ridesic, Shaw Festival’s Tim Jennings, and Tim Johnson of the Indigenous cultural organization Plenty Canada, asked town council to support their vision of retaining the facility to bring their organizations, along with Yellow Door Theatre, Music Niagara Festival and a new nursery school, under one roof.
Niagara Health closed the old NOTL hospital, removing the beds in 2015. This February, the doctors and other medical professionals who had been operating out of the lower floor of the building moved to a new facility in The Village subdivision, leaving much of that floor vacant.
Ridesic told Stiles the town bought the hospital from Niagara Health in 2018, and the previous council under Lord Mayor Betty Disero opened a request for expressions of interest, but dropped the process prior to October’s election.
“They are doing a review now,” said the founder and CEO of a local business, The Exchange Brewery. “The new council wants to take a look at the inventory of properties. My gut feeling, and everyone’s, I think, is of course they are going to have to keep it for community use. But we have to let them go through this process.”
Royal Oak head of school Julia Murray told Stiles the innovative hub concept’s overall goal is to strengthen the community of NOTL.
“By bringing these non-profits together,” she explained, “we hope to strengthen social networks, strengthen the impact of each of these cultural organizations, collaborate, and share space and services. It will allow us to synthesize new creative ideas by having these powerhouse non-profit organizations that are currently siloed working together, and thinking about how they can benefit from one another.”
Murray pointed out that the building itself came about in 1950 through the fundraising efforts of the citizens in NOTL.
“It’s the last town-owned community-use building in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” she added. “This belongs to the residents, and this particular location should serve them. In the past, community buildings have been sold off to developers. We want to stop that pattern. This is our last space that can really give back and do it in a way that benefits the whole town.”
“We really feel that this can be an example in Canada of a successful community hub,” Ridesic told the NDP leader. “We have a great group of organizations, and really committed donors willing to invest all the capital we need to adaptively reuse the building and to green the building.”
Ridesic went on to suggest a hub would have impact far beyond just the services it would offer, providing benefit to tourism in the town as well as the arts sector as a whole.
“It can transform this whole end of town,” said Ridesic, “to make it an atrium that highlights the arts and culture we have going on in the community that connects with Fort George and Parks Canada. They are very keen to be able to work with the community. I can’t think of a better location in the country to showcase something like this.”
Stiles suggested to the attendees, who also included Karyll Justo, the potential operator of the proposed nursery school, that making an economic case for the hub is key to having their dreams realized.
“Bringing services into a community like that,” said the MPP for Davenport, “it’s immediately an attraction for people who want to come here to live and work. And they’ll reinvest in the community. I think there’s a really strong economic argument here.”
Ridesic impressed both Stiles and Gates when she informed them that $2 million had already been raised, including a large sum from a family foundation, for necessary upgrades to the facility.
It’s not the first time such a proposal for a cultural hub in NOTL has come to the fore.
“I fought to keep our school open,” Gates said of Parliament Oak Public School, which the school board closed in 2015. “Then, when we were going down that road, one of the things we wanted to do at that time was to have it as a community hub. It would have been a win for the town and the community.”
Murray and Ridesic explained how the non-profits housed under one roof could bring unique opportunities for collaboration, including Shaw actors and crew members and Music Niagara musicians working with Royal Oak students. It would also offer opportunities for local seniors to remain active through volunteering with the various groups at the hub.
As well, its location on land with rich history would provide further opportunities for Plenty Canada’s Indigenous cultural programming. Unfortunately, the last-minute nature of the meeting meant representatives of that organization, as well as Shaw Festival and Music Niagara, were unable to attend.
The two NDP MPPs offered help to the hub proponents in navigating the sometimes complicated process of researching and applying for grants for the project, as well as assistance by writing letters of support to various levels of government.
“If I were the town,” Ridesic said, “I would want to continue to own the land but get rid of the burden of the building. I would say in our long-term community planning, we don’t know what our needs will be 50 or 100 years from now, so we’d like to continue to own it. It’s exactly like the agreement the Shaw has with Parks Canada across the road.”
Stiles said she feels there should be funding available through Infrastructure Ontario for community projects such as the hub, but added that currently most projects that receive funding have a housing component attached. She also expressed hope that Justo’s daycare plans could benefit from provincial capital potentially available to communities for increased child care spaces.
Following the meeting, Ridesic expressed gratitude to Gates for suggesting that he bring his party leader in for the meeting. She was very pleased with the potential benefits it could bring to the groups as they move forward.
“I think they both were very supportive of the concept,” she told The Local. “They see the vision, they see the impact that it can have on the community. I think they will be great partners and resources for us as we move forward. Support at the provincial level to help us access resources that we need is great.”