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Ritchot races to save childcare spaces

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 03/3/2018 8:30 AM

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Dawson Trail MLA Bob Lagasse, former Ritchot mayor Jackie Hunt, and NHHI's Gordan Daman look over redevelopment plans for the St Adolphe personal care home site in March 2017. Those plans, which were to include new childcare spaces for the community, have been abandoned after NHHI was unable to reach an agreement with the new Ritchot council elected last July.

JORDAN ROSS | CARILLON ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Dawson Trail MLA Bob Lagasse, former Ritchot mayor Jackie Hunt, and NHHI's Gordan Daman look over redevelopment plans for the St Adolphe personal care home site in March 2017. Those plans, which were to include new childcare spaces for the community, have been abandoned after NHHI was unable to reach an agreement with the new Ritchot council elected last July.

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Ritchot mayor Chris Ewen formed a new committee last week to figure out where to place 90 new licensed childcare spaces promised to St Adolphe, now that a planned inter-generational complex will not be proceeding.

Ewen said he hopes to add a senior community member and daycare representative to the committee, which currently consists of himself, councillors, and an economic development officer.

The committee will weigh options and try to generate a recommendation before the municipality tables its financial plan this spring, Ewen said.

"It is really up in the air until we actually get to sit down and start doing our master plan of this whole project," Ewen said.

Any capital construction must commence before April 2019, when the $561,280 in provincial childcare expires.

Until late last year, the childcare spaces were going to be housed in a proposed four-storey inter-generational complex situated on a 2.5-acre Main Street property acquired by Niverville Heritage Holdings Inc. (NHHI) in 2009.

NHHI revealed its plan when the province made its daycare funding announcement last March.

Drawings included a 6,000-sq-ft. daycare, assisted living suites, commercial components, and the renovation of the adjacent Chalet Bonsejour into supportive living units.

Then-mayor Jackie Hunt welcomed the project, telling The Carillon that the waitlist for St Adolphe’s 28 licensed daycare spaces sometimes reached 36 months.

A derelict personal care home on the property was demolished last May, though a byelection two months later paused further consultations between the NHHI and municipality.

In November, minutes show Ritchot council voted not to pursue NHHI’s proposal, citing "too much unknown risk."

"It was a big cost to the RM to start this project," Ewen explained.

NHHI vice-president Gordon Daman said the board asked Ritchot to take the lead on governance by creating a non-profit holding company to carry the project’s debt load at arm’s length.

NHHI was willing to develop and staff the complex, Daman said, but was disinclined to own the complex outright, preferring local ownership instead.

Daman acknowledged the start-up risk entailed by the project would have required NHHI to leverage Niverville assets, and said the organization preferred to protect its newfound stability after nearly 15 years of rapid growth.

"Our goal right from the beginning was to work with a local community group. There was none that was identified," he said.

Ritchot’s chief administrative officer, Mitch Duval, said creating a holding company to back a multi-million dollar mortgage "created an uneasy feeling at the municipality."

As a result, in January, NHHI relinquished seniors’ housing funding attached to the project, Daman said.

In a meeting 10 days ago, Ewen said he received assurances from Dawson Trail MLA Bob Lagasse and Families Minister Scott Fielding that the promised childcare funding was transferrable to the community’s existing licensed daycare centre in St Adolphe School.

Daman said the best location for the spaces remains the Main Street site, given its proximity to the school’s green space and playground.

But the municipality would need to purchase the property before other parties do. NHHI has solicited expressions of interest from private developers, Daman said, and hopes to hear back by early March.

"We can only speculate what the dollar figures would be for that property, and I think we would not be interested," Duval said.

"We’re trying to assist the daycare in St Adolphe to move forward with the project."

Reflecting on the past year, Daman said NHHI expected a change in council would produce delays, not a flat refusal.

"It was just anticipated that there would be this continued partnership," he said.

"I lament that the current council didn’t appreciate how important it is to invest in seniors’ housing."

Comparing the consultations in St Adolphe to the groundwork laid in Niverville 15 years ago, Daman said NHHI struggled to establish with Ritchot the "organic" connection and "continuity of understanding" that it found with the Town of Niverville.

But Daman added the experience hasn’t soured NHHI on consulting on community projects outside of Niverville, or working alongside Ritchot council on other future projects.

Ewen said he remains aware of the need for more seniors’ housing in several Ritchot communities.

"We really need to find a way to accommodate the aging population. Right now though…the funding is key because we don’t want to lose that," he said.

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