Needs study for senior's centre is a win-win proposition

First published: July 26, 2006

Councillor Gil Brocanier is right to slow down and do a needs assessment for a proposed senior’s centre in Cobourg. The controversial plan to develop a 12,850 sq. ft. building at a cost of about $2.2 million on D’Arcy Street was becoming a potential time bomb for the fall elections.

Yes, this proposal has its merits and its faults; but despite whatever motivated Brocanier to champion this project, it is now moved into the realm of electoral politics and will have a major impact this fall.

Supporters of the project, many of them seniors who use the existing centre at the old Market building downtown behind Victoria Hall, realize their space is quickly becoming inadequate, if it is not already that way. With nearly 500 paid members, and close to 30 various activities, it is a vibrant service to residents.

Still, critics of the plan abound. There are those who worry about cost. The town will dip into funds generated from its share in the local utilities company. But some argue there will be a 4.5 per cent tax increase for two years to cover the costs.

Others challenge the need for the space, asking council to look at other empty or under utilized space around town, such as schools, churches, the former Park Theatre (Alcatraz), the empty Empire Plaza hotel, Victoria Hall, the Cobourg Public Library and the various service club building like IOOF, Knights of Columbus, Lions and others. Brocanier must realize the value in doing this kind of study. By using this space, not only would seniors benefit, but the opportunity to provide revenue for charitable organizations would also be a plus. Renovating the Park or Plaza would also be a great idea, since it would save key buildings in the downtown and preserve part of the local heritage, as well as keep the service within the town’s core.

On top of these and other concerns, there is also the exclusive nature of the original proposal. Many people, according to the recent survey, are in favour of a multi-use site, not one just for seniors. The original plan included the Cobourg Soccer Club. Yet, there are those who would like to see a centre that included youth and other segments of the town included.

Most recently, a 24-year-old father in Cobourg bemoaned the lack of space for teenagers. Jeremy Noseworthy said he misses the Youth Action Centre, a program sponsored by the YMCA and the Cobourg Police Service, which was closed down in 2001. While it was replaced by the Youth in Schools program, there is not a place for young people to gathers beyond sports-related activities. Young artists, musicians and others seeking a place to hang out, do not have services.

What is most compelling about a tandem youth and senior’s centre is the fact that both these groups are the fasting growing segments of Cobourg’s population, according to a recent demographic study. And, while the town has created the skateboard park and supports programs at the YMCA, it does not have a comprehensive facility for youth to meet or put on concerts.

There are about 5,375 people over the age of 55 according to the most recent figures published by StatsCan. That is just under one-third of the population. And, if demographic trends continue, it will grow. Certainly, as developers continue to push expensive condominium housing aimed at retired or semi-retired Torontonians, it makes sense to invest in a facility to serve this group.

But, the highest priority must be demonstrating a need. While it is easy to be swept up in the plea by the senior’s group, they represent a very small portion of the overall number seniors in the community and an even smaller portion of the overall community. If the cost is going to be justified, then, it only seems right that a comprehensive study is necessary looking at a broad range of users. It is vital the study look at all groups, not just one organization or demographic. Low income, children, teens and various recreational groups must be examined to provide a thorough picture of what Cobourg needs.

Within the study must be an inventory of existing space and its uses. The town may be better served if it created a central booking service to assist organizations, churches and schools to determine where unreserved spaces exist. This could allow groups of all kinds better utilize the many buildings, which often sit empty, and have a financial benefit. To this end, organizations with empty building could create multi-tiered fees structures to give the best deals to seniors to encourage usage.

And, at the risk of being somewhat idealist, the needs assessment might want to look at regional needs, too. While surrounding municipalities try to run services, many people come to Cobourg to use it facilities and belong to its organizations.

Brocanier is wise to do a study. However, he will also benefit politically. By undertaking this needs assessment, he will be able to skillfully deflect any criticism he is electioneering and provide solid proof he is addressing community need. It will also ensure his name is front and centre in the fall as he makes his bid for the deputy mayor’s job. Other councillors, if wise, can also jump on the bandwagon to help them get re-elected.

It is a win-win, if it is done right. And, those are very rare in a community and in politics.