By Kevin Werner, News Staff
In a surprising development, Hamilton Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead proposed a local non-profit organization take over Auchmar Estate less than a few weeks before the city ask organizations to submit applications to operate the aging facility.
But politicians concerned about up-ending the request for proposal process and skittish about the company refusing to reveal itself to the public rejected the idea in a close 7-6 vote at the June 23 government issues committee.
Whitehead, though, was saying the final vote has yet to be counted. Politicians are scheduled to vote on the recommendation at their June 25 council meeting.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” he said. “I think there’s going to be when (councillors) understand the organization, understand the type of use, I think there will be a few people banging their heads. These are not fly-by-night people.”
Whitehead after the vote said he couldn’t reveal who the organization was because of the “nature of their structure.”
The Ward 8 councillor and City Manager Chris Murray said the organization approached him about a month ago suggesting it take over the 9.5 acre historical facility, which has been a financial drain on the city.
Murraysaid the group, which didn’t want to reveal its name, didn’t want to participate in the RFP process citing the non-binding conditions as one of the reasons.
Murray acknowledged it was an “unusual” situation, but he found the proposal credible and an option that politicians should consider.
“It’s an opportunity to sit down and work out an agreement for an appropriate use,” said Murray.
The city issued an expression of interest in October 2012 to seek out organizations that could take over the use of the Auchmar Estate at88 Fennell Avenue. The city received seven replies in June 2013, including from Mohawk College, Cobalt Connects, Sahara Hospital Inc., and the Friends of Auchmar. But Murray and Whitehead said only two of those expressions were considered worthwhile. Whitehead said a number of the proposals want to commercialize Auchmar in a way that is not appropriate for the area. He said the unnamed organization would develop the property that is compatible with the surrounding neighbourhood.
Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark called the proposal “unprecedented” that will essentially circumvent the RFP process.
Whitehead and Murray said another reason to accept the unnamed organization’s proposal was the city has already gone through the RFP process for Auchmar in the past. The city issued an RFP between 2001 and 2003, but no credible proposals were submitted. The city also rejected an idea from the former Settlement Integration Services Organization (SISO) to purchase the property. And at one point Columbia College was interested in the buildings for student residences.
In 2009 the city created a business plan on how to re-use Auchmar outlining five main possibilities including a non-profit community cultural center; a curatorial center; an exhibition space for historical education; and using the building and grounds for public events.
Council did approve to spend $1.5 million from the Hamilton Future Fund to build aConservationCenterin the Coach House. Interior demolition was completed in early 2011. But in January 2011 all work was halted when city staff and council decided to review the future of Auchmar.
The city has over the last few years conducted restoration work on the Manor House, including the first floor, the roof and chimneys.
Heritage activists, including the incorporated Friends of Auchmar, acknowledge there is some salvation in the fact that the Ontario Heritage Trust has an easement on the property that protects the interior and exterior architectural value by restricting what can be done to the property and buildings. The property is zoned urban protected residential with permitted uses including a foster home, single detached dwelling, residential care facility, a retirement house, a day nursery, a school, seminary, library, museum and community center.
Some members of the Friends of Auchmar were surprised with the developments by councillors.
Robin McKee, a local historian, said there is a “lack of transparency” with what is going on. Pat Saunders, another board member, said she didn’t realize what was happening, but would soon find out.