Post Mortem on Aurora’s Deal with Niagara College

Dear Fellow Residents of Aurora:

Introduction

On December 5, 2017, following a lavish celebration with dinner and drinks, most Council Members, Town Executive Staff and representatives from the Niagara College arrived at Town Hall for a General Committee meeting to announce that an agreement had been signed to locate a post-secondary Culinary School at the Aurora Armoury.

As the only member of Town Council to oppose this agreement, I am keenly aware of how important it is to present the facts in a fair and dispassionate manner. The purpose of this document, therefore, is to inform the citizens of Aurora of how the deal with Niagara College was arrived at and what the terms of the deal actually are. I will then leave it to my fellow residents/taxpayers to decide if this deal is good for our community.

Fact #1 – the Aurora Armoury is a rare heritage building located in our extremely active and iconic Town Park. The building is about to undergo a $5 million renovation, including a 2,600 sq. ft. addition, along with a commercial kitchen, refrigerators, and classroom space for the Culinary School.

What we have right now is 8,200 sq. ft. of space. If we allow for 1,500 square feet for washrooms and mechanical systems, that leaves 6,700 square feet of marvelous interior space, featuring a magnificent hall with beautiful wood trimming. If the Town desired, the renovated Armoury could be used to generate consistent revenues by hosting a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, weddings, concerts, the Historical Society Ball, Sport Aurora’s Breakfast of Champions, the Chamber of Commerce Business awards and many, many more.

Historically, all these events (and others) have been held outside of Aurora because we have not had a suitable facility. With the renovations and the resulting expansive wood hall, the Aurora Armoury would have been perfect for all kinds of events with the potential to generate revenues for many years to come.

The bottom line is that the Aurora Armoury as it is now, before any addition, is a unique historic asset – a perfect space that is in complete accordance with a recent staff report stressing the community’s need for a cultural hub through the development of a multi-use cultural facility.

In other words, we do not ever need to consider building another cultural facility because we already have one…and it’s a wonderful community treasure.

Fact #2 – the negotiations with Niagara College to locate the culinary school at the Aurora Armoury were conducted in “closed session”, which is to say, in total secret. As a result, the citizens of Aurora did not know about the terms of the deal until after it had been finalized. In other words, there was no public consultation and no opportunity for the residents, community partners, or the businesses of Aurora to express their views.

Fact #3 – the deal with Niagara College involved no due diligence. This means that no steering committee was formed, very few of the staff disciplines were engaged, no post-secondary investment strategy was adopted, no specific economic or community benefits were identified, no financial risk assessment or cost/benefit analyses were conducted, and no alternatives were explored. One staff member, operating in relative isolation, was responsible for preparing reports and making recommendations to the Town Council who simply accepted whatever was proposed.

In fact, our Chief Administrative Officer recently reported that Niagara College is still in the process of preparing a “Program Development” document, which means that no economic or community benefits have yet been provided to Town Council.

The bottom line is that the agreement was reached without any substantive due diligence and without any evidence of what the actual impact of the school will be.

Fact #4 – The Town Council was encouraged to look for a suitable alternative location for the culinary school. The number one alternative option was the Baldwin building located near the GO Station in the cultural precinct. The Baldwin building, which was up for lease during that time, features wide-open 5000 square feet of space, an additional 2500 square feet for expansion, and already has a commercial kitchen. In short, this was an ideal place for a Culinary School but the Town Council refused to look at it.

It is important to note that if the Baldwin building had been chosen for the Culinary School, the Armoury would have been saved for the cultural and economic benefit of everyone in Aurora.

Fact #5 – there are 17 Ontario colleges that offer culinary courses, most notably Centennial, Durham, Fanshaw, George Brown, Georgian, Humber and St. Lawrence. The Aurora Town Council was also encouraged to expand its scope and invite these potential partners to look at and possibly bid on the Armoury. This would have established a competitive bidding process that could have optimized the terms of the agreement and the benefits for Aurora.

The Aurora Town Council refused to entertain anyone but Niagara College. No one else was allowed to bid on one of our town’s finest buildings and historic assets.

Fact #6 – the initial capital cost estimate to renovate the Armoury was $2.3 million, which has now escalated to $5 million. After the agreement with Niagara College, which includes the Town picking up the tab for the cost of a 2,600 square-foot addition, the Town will be left with 2700 square feet of event space and will have relinquished 6,600 square feet to the Niagara College operations.

Question: how much of the $5 million capital cost for the Armoury’s restoration and expansion does Niagara College have to pay? Answer: Zero. Nada. Nothing.

Fact #7 – an independent appraisal of the Armoury stated that the building should generate $1.575 million in lease payments over five years or $315,000 per year. The actual lease agreement with Niagara College will generate $1.10 million over five years or $480,000 less than what the independent appraisal said the lease should be.

That’s not all. In addition to giving Niagara College a break on the lease, the Town Council agreed to pay the college $150,000 in year one, $112,000 in year two, and $75,000 in each of the final three years of the agreement.

That’s still not all. In addition, the Town Council agreed to pay all of Niagara College’s maintenance and utility bills, including heat, at an estimated cost of $150,000 per year for the entire five-year lease.

Fact #7 – under the terms of the agreement, if Niagara College wants to rent out any of the space at the Armoury, all of the revenues will go to the college. None of the money will go to the Town of Aurora who owns the building.

Fact #8 – many Councilors have stated that under the terms of the lease, “Niagara College will invest up to $500,000 in start-up costs and staffing for the first year of operation, with additional investment in subsequent years.” To date, no one has been able to define what would comprise this $500K investment. Aside from moving some books and furniture into the Armoury, it is very likely that the start-up costs for Niagara College will be negligible. It is also very likely that in subsequent years, Niagara College’s additional investment in our community will be negligible.

Fact #9 – on numerous occasions the Town Council has talked about the tremendous spinoff benefits that will result from the Niagara College Culinary School. The Councilors often use fancy terms such as “potential business incubator” to refer to the potential economic benefits of the school but not one Councilor has been able to provide any specifics.

In the absence of a serious business case, here is the most probable economic impact the culinary school will have, which I invite anyone to refute:

  • Most of the culinary students will commute each day to the school, so they will not be spending money on local accommodations.

  • Most students do not have a lot of extra spending money.

  • The local McDonald’s may sell more hamburgers…and that’s about it.

Fact #10 – under the terms of the agreement, Niagara College will receive $75,000 per year to cater Aurora Town Hall events. For many years, various local restaurants in Aurora have taken turns catering the Town Hall’s numerous events. This represents good money for these local entrepreneurs. Willy-nilly, the Town Council chose to take this money right out of the pockets of our local business people.

The fact is that the Town Council has given Niagara College a strangle-hold on catering in Aurora. Think of it this way: a local catering business who pays rent, taxes, utilities and labour will now have to compete against Niagara College who gets $75K per year, has subsidized rent, no maintenance or utility costs, and a free student labour force. No wonder our local restauranteurs are upset.

Fact #11 – on December 5, 2017, prior to the General Committee meeting at Town Hall, the majority of Town Council (with the exception of Jeff Thom, Wendy Gaertner, Sandra Humfryes and myself and several of the Town Hall Executives celebrated the deal by hosting representatives from Niagara College at a lavish and very expensive dinner at the most exclusive country club in Aurora. Aurora taxpayers paid for this.

As Deputy Mayor, I attended this event and while nursing a glass of water, had a good discussion with each of the seven faculty members from Niagara College. Then I went home, had dinner, and went to the General Committee Meeting at Town Hall…cold sober. I can’t speak for the rest of the Councillors. The CAO confirmed the tab for alcohol picked up by the Town, was $395.

Fact #12 – a recent audit of the Joint Operating Committee (JOC) concluded that the Aurora Town Council is severely lacking in due diligence and that it makes decisions based on inadequate information. The Audit Report practically implored the Council to adopt a much more disciplined Project Management Methodology when making decisions on major capital investments.

The Town Council has ignored every one of the Audit Report’s recommendations.

Conclusion

There will be no substantive economic benefits from the Niagara College Culinary School, which explains why no one on the council has been able to provide any specifics in this regard. In fact, an objective analysis indicates that the community and local economy will be negatively impacted by the terms of this deal.

The Council also refused to consider any alternatives even though better options were right there in front of their noses. Instead, they gave away one of our most treasured assets; they only considered Niagara College when other colleges could have easily been approached; and they caved into all of Niagara College’s demands. They didn’t even negotiate. And they did all this in total secret!

In short, the Council gave away “the proverbial farm” for no good reason. To add injury to insult, they chose to punish our local restauranteurs.

The deal with Niagara College is an abomination. With just a modicum of effort and due diligence, we could have had “our cake and eat it too.” We could have saved the precious Armoury for our own cultural and economic benefit by locating the culinary school at Baldwins. Instead, we cut a terrible deal that will cost Aurora a lot of money while losing one of our most valuable historic assets.

With that fiasco under its belt, the Town Council is now about to approve a $21 million addition to the Cultural Centre because we lack a community space.

For the record – and to be crystal clear – we already had an ideal community space that we just gave away to Niagara College. The ink isn’t even dry on that deal and the Council now wants to waste more of your money. This profligate nonsense must stop.

If elected Mayor of Aurora, there will be no more secret negotiations and no more secret back room deals. We will be transparent in all our dealings and we will always negotiate in your best interest. Under my leadership, the Town Council will be united by one goal: improving the lives of the people of Aurora.

If you agree with the facts – and the interpretation of the facts – expressed in this letter, then I ask for your support on October 22, 2018. If there is anything you disagree with, please contact me at (905) 506-0571 or john@johnabel.ca. I would be more than happy to discuss.

Sincerely,

John Abel

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