The saga of the All-Norfolk Hub in Simcoe ended with a debate at Governor Simcoe Square over ethics on Sept. 15.
At issue was whether Norfolk council should follow through on its commitment to cash in $4 million worth of real estate it acquired last year for the $50-million proposal, or whether the county should maximize its payback to the taxpayer now that Norfolk has two appraisals saying the 32.5 acres in question are worth double the purchase price.
In the end, it wasn’t close. With Mayor Kristal Chopp and Simcoe Coun. Ryan Taylor casting the lone dissenting votes, council opted to cash in its chips.
“It’s no secret that constituents in west Norfolk have not been big fans of the hub,” Port Rowan Coun. Tom Masschaele said. “For the past 14 months of being constantly asked about it, I’ve said the money is coming right back if not approved. It’s an approach that everyone well understood.
“In any event, the hub is over. The mayor and staff did a good job of getting us to this point. We haven’t lost anything to this point but time. I don’t think we want to break even at the blackjack table just to move on to the roulette table. This is a promise we need to keep.”
During the discussion, Chopp shared details about the acquisition of land at Decou and Ireland roads in Simcoe that are normally kept behind closed doors.
For one, council heard that the developers associated with the Zitia subdivision, south of Oakwood Cemetery, initially offered the land to Norfolk for about $10 million. Chopp said the asking price was so “out there” that the county didn’t even bother to counter-offer.
This location was the first choice of Norfolk’s Recreational Facilities Advisory Board. In order to present the province and federal government with a “shovel-ready” proposal, Norfolk needed the land to have any hope of securing an estimated $30 million in funding for the multi-use facility.
Chopp, however, did return to the bargaining table at the developers’ invitation. They mayor negotiated the main parcel – 24.4 acres – down to $3.2 million. The deal included an option requiring the developer to buy back the land if Norfolk’s funding application was denied. That happened in August.
“The mayor was able to negotiate the price down considerably,” Vittoria Coun. Chris Van Paassen said. “The developers knew that building the hub at this location would considerably increase the value of their land.”
With Norfolk council’s support for the hub contingent on federal-provincial funding, Van Paassen noted it was incumbent on council to follow through on its repeated commitment to Norfolk taxpayers to retrieve their investment.
“From moral grounds, it’s just the right thing to do,” Van Paassen said.
Chopp countered that the purchase agreement gives Norfolk County until June to decide what it wants to do. Given that independent appraisals suggest the land is worth more than double what Norfolk has committed, the mayor argued that council has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the return to the municipal treasury.
Finding that good deal, Chopp said, will take time. It’s certainly off the table, the mayor added, if Norfolk parts with the real estate at a discount.
“Is it not our obligation to the taxpayer to try and make this money?” said the mayor, pointing out that Norfolk is about to enter another difficult budget season.
“In today’s environment, I wonder what it’s going to look like coming up with a couple million dollars.”
But it was to no effect. Councillors had heard from their constituents and wanted to move on. The vote in favour of triggering a refund was 7-2.