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Regional hubs paying off across the county

Hub model is saving the County of Simcoe — and taxpayers — roughly 10 per cent of costs on major projects, county official estimates

The County of Simcoe has its sights firmly set on the big picture.

The movement toward a regional hub model of thinking has paid off in spades for the county coffers, and therefore also for the taxpayer.

Some examples of regional hub projects overseen by the County of Simcoe are the Barrie-Simcoe emergency services campus project, the Collingwood Second Street affordable housing build and the county’s acquisition of the Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute (ODCVI) property in Orillia.

LINX transit and the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport purchase are other examples of the same line of thinking.

“Overall, we’re always looking for cost efficiencies and for ways to increase service and convenience, or better access for our residents and trying to enhance regional benefits,” said Trevor Wilcox, general manager of corporate performance with the County of Simcoe.

“With the Barrie-Simcoe Emergency Campus, we saved about $5 million to $6 million doing it together, rather than building it separate,” he added.

Overall, Wilcox estimates that the regional hub model saves about 10 per cent of costs when compared to building facilities separately.

“So, if it’s a $10-million project, you’re going to save about $1 million. That’s a good estimate of the quantum of savings,” he said. “We’re looking at things from a regional benefit, rather than from just an individual community benefit.”

One of the reasons the regional hub model hadn’t been implemented sooner at the county level was the silos many services used to exist in.

“We’ve had different groups who perform in silos and don’t co-ordinate. That has historically happened,” said Wilcox. “I think now we’re more and more seeing the benefits of grouping things together so services are complimentary.”

Cost is also a factor, with many individual municipalities unable to pull the money together for bigger projects alone.

Wilcox points to the recent purchase of the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport in Oro-Medonte Township as an example.

“Some significant upfront investments do that. It can be a bit of a risk, but it’s been proven out now so it’s catching on,” he said.

When deciding which services are going to work well together within one hub, Wilcox said that part of the equation isn’t quite an exact science yet. He points to the ODCVI project as being one where the county is still in consultation with the public in Orillia to see exactly what they need.

“The mix will be different. There is no one-size-fits-all (solution) for all municipalities,” said Wilcox. “It depends on what services may not have a home and what the need is in the community.”

Wilcox said the county has a loose plan for where they’d like to see regional hubs set up, but final decisions are reliant on a variety of factors such as real estate becoming available.

“We want to take any opportunity we have, and try to apply this model,” he said, adding that the opportunity came up with Collingwood because the county already owned the social housing in the municipality, but it needed to be redeveloped.

At the ODCVI property in Orillia, Wilcox said the former school was declared surplus and the county saw the need in the community for a hub there.

“With real estate, it’s all a matter of timing,” he said.

On the ground floor of the senior’s building of the Collingwood project is an Ontario Works office, a children services office and other community partners including the school board.

“That provides the convenience factor. It also provides us with a bit of a revenue off-set to cover the cost of our social housing,” said Wilcox.

For just the commercial space, Wilcox said the rent brought in will be about $240,000 per year.

“It will also enable us to be able to put away some money for the future,” he added.

“We try to look at it from a financial sustainability standpoint where, after the money is allocated for building it from the province, federal and county, ideally we’re generating enough revenue from the tenants and from commercial to be able to maintain that building forever,” he said.

While Wilcox couldn’t elaborate much further on future plans for more regional hubs, he did say the county is interested in consolidating the social housing system in Barrie, which could be a contender for a future hub project.

“Right now, we own a lot of separate small homes and units spread across different parts of Barrie, and we’ve had direction from council to slowly sell those off,” he said. “We’re looking for an opportunity to develop something that would provide a hub-type model there similar to the Collingwood build.”

Wilcox has concerns that some of the changes coming down from the province could make things difficult for the model the county has worked so hard on.

“My concerns around some of this are... unintended consequences related to some of the provincial changes and the structure of regional services,” said Wilcox, pointing to provincial talks about paramedic services, long-term care and the regional governance review.

“The fear is, if they’re not thought-out very well and transitioned appropriately, then the great things we’re putting in place could go awry,” he said. “I’d hate to see the benefits of what we’ve done, be undone.”

“It could throw a wrench into our integrated model,” he added.

The public consultation information received by the county for the ODCVI property in Orillia are still being compiled and will be presented at a future meeting of county council.

The Barrie-Simcoe Emergency Services Campus is slated to be completed construction in 2020.

The affordable housing building of the Collingwood Second Street project opened in May, with the second structure, for seniors with commercial space on the main floor, expected to be fully occupied in the fall.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 12 years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering Collingwood, County of Simcoe and education.
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