|Founders' Hall on the Charlottetown waterfront with the outdoor skating rink located in front. (Guardian File Photo)|
BY KIRSTEN CONNOR
GUEST OPINION published by The Guardian March 21, 2018
Founders’ Hall is like a cat with nine lives as far as it affects taxpayers.
Various public entities appear to be playing musical chairs in their involvement in this previously public-owned heritage property.
These entities are quasi-government agencies, boards, authorities, corporation, whatever their names, created for political convenience. Many appear to be like little fiefdoms run by political, lifetime, patronage-appointed boards; staff, operating with taxpayers’ money, and beneath the radar of public scrutiny.
To recap the history of Founders’ Hall:
Canadian National Railroad built it. When redundant for its original use, it became the property of the provincial government.
Various uses were proposed such as a provincial museum or a farmers’ market. All were rejected and part of it became the home of the Tourist Information Centre.
A gruesome amount of money was then poured into the hare-brained idea of creating a museum with entrance fees, that imitated the real thing, available for free at Province House, just a few blocks away.
Ironically, they closed it, just as restoration brought visitation to Province House to a halt, and when that substitute could have given some pleasure to so many disappointed tourists.
In 2016 with the museum closed and in an expensive experiment, the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) was reborn and twinned with an alcohol sales venue in the tiny adjacent stone house.
This left Founders’ Hall mostly empty save for a few offices, and a sign on the door directing tourists to the stone house across the lot.
Last year saw the TIC moved back to Founders’ Hall and all traces of the museum gone - gone where? Nobody knows.
The owner of the building, Charlottetown Development Corporation, then sold the building and land to a private developer for a reported $3.35 M, (is the province holding the mortgage?) who immediately announced great plans for an artisan market for the vast area not leased by the government for the TIC. This, in competition with the well-established vendors in the cruise ship arrival terminal?
In January 2018, the City of Charlottetown announced the purchase of a land portion of the property for $1.25 M from the developer, amidst comments that had CADC sold it directly to the city, the taxpayers could have saved almost half the purchase price.
Roll forward to March 2018 and we learn that not the developer, but a public agency, the Port Authority is 'gauging different levels of interest' in space for an urban market, and has, before completing 'the gauging,’ already signed a two-year lease from March 2018, details of which of course are unknown.
do not know the amount of the lease. We do not know if it is for the bare hall with the cost of shelves and other furnishing to be borne by the Port Authority, in which case two years would hardly make a dent in recovering the cost.
There appears to be no business plan in place and rent is being paid while research (gauging) into sales space demands, and prospective numbers and kinds of vendors is being conducted.
What if there is no or only scant demand for space? Is the lease/rent adjustable, if this venture is only feasible during the summer months? A two-year lease is hardly long enough to develop a market presence in the community.
This is a rather unorthodox way of doing business, but perhaps it is not to be regarded as a business venture at all, but rather as a simple good will gesture between friends. How are we to know?
The announced lease arrangement between the Port Authority and the developer is obviously not based on a normal business decision.
It would be in the interest of all parties involved to have an investigation to clear the air, and to establish if this is a profitable venture or a form of bail-out or subsidy at the taxpayers’ expense.
The frosting on the cake for taxpayers, and to come full circle, would be if CADC bought back Founders’ Hall for $10 M and established a provincial museum there. The irony would be almost unbearable.
- Kirsten Connor was chair of the City of Charlottetown’s Heritage Review Board from 1979 to 1986