PORT AUX BASQUES, N.L. – The Town of Channel-Port aux Basques is not competing with the private sector, maintains Councillor and former town manager Melvin Keeping, who is also a director of Gateway Village.
Speaking on behalf of council, Keeping addressed concerns raised by resident Greg Sheaves in a letter to the editor in the July 30 edition of The Gulf News.
“We don’t feel we are (competing),” said Keeping. “There’s a great need for accessible and affordable housing.”
He noted that like most communities along the southwest coast, Port aux Basques has an aging population and that demand for affordable housing will only continue to grow. Keeping says council must take steps to address that now.
“We’d love to see the private sector take an initiative, but there appears to be little or no interest here, so in conjunction with Gateway Village we decided to move forward with the initiative,” said Keeping.
On Tuesday, July 17 the province announced that Gateway Village Corporation had been successful in its bid to build eight new units on the site of the old Bruce Arena. The property, which belongs to the town, was eyeballed by a private developer last year.
By then the town had already contracted a consultant and was drawing up its own application to erect senior housing, but when a private developer expressed interest council halted its own application.
“We had told him we were in that process then but given that the private sector was interested we decided look, we’re not going to move forward with ours now,” recalls Keeping. “Even though with the affordable housing there’s non-profit and for profit.”
Keeping points out that the Gateway Village units are non-profit, whereas the private developer was seeking to build for profit units.
“We had Shauna (Strickland), the development officer, work with him,” said Keeping, and says the town even pointed the developer to its own consultant to develop his proposal.
“We could not just sell him the old property up there because of the requirements of the Municipalities Act and we put out a request for proposals. He put a submission in,” said Keeping, “My understanding is that his price was below what the assessed value of the property was.”
Eventually the developer wrote a letter to council withdrawing his interest, so Gateway Village once again went ahead with its non-profit proposal.
Keeping has confirmed that the eight new units are slated for seniors. During the affordable housing announcement, current town manager Leon MacIsaac estimated the town’s wait list for the units at around 60.
“So, eight units. We’re only scratching the surface,” said Keeping. “If we had 50, we still wouldn’t be meeting demand.”
Keeping notes that the units aren’t just affordable for seniors, but that they will be accessible, which is also key. Current privately-owned apartments within the town can’t always meet these criteria.
“There’s none of these units available around town, or very few of them.”
In addition to local seniors, Keeping said other seniors along the southwest coast may choose to downsize and relocate closer to the hospital, which will also drive demand in future years.
“As a council we get the residents coming to us, saying they have concerns, and senior housing is a big issue, and I’m talking about accessible housing,” he noted.
Keeping said before the current council even took office, during the public meet and greet sessions, each candidate repeatedly addressed the issue with worried voters.
“We put in for (funding for) 10. We were lucky to get eight,” said Keeping, who noted that the town may have to look at future non-profit units, but should a private developer show interest council will always choose to back off.
“Not only that, we’ll work with them. Right now, we’ve got Shauna working with a private developer in town who’s looking at going through (the application process). They can acquire quite a bit of funding for this and Shauna is working with them.”
Keeping declined to say more, citing confidentiality issues, but has confirmed meetings have taken place and that the town will continue to work with the developer.
Housing issues aside, Keeping also says the town has done what it could to drive new business in the town while being careful not to compete with the private sector.
In his letter, Sheaves also cited the former Barry’s fish plant, which is currently owned by the town, as competition when it comes to small business locations.
“I can remember when Bill Barry, when he was in the process of shutting that down, and it was just through word of mouth that we (council) found out that they were going to totally dismantle and knock down the building,” said Keeping. “Pressure was on from the community that we should not let that piece of infrastructure go to ruin.”
Council responded by purchasing the building from Barry for $1 but under certain conditions.
“For a private sector to take something like that on, it was going to be difficult, because they can’t access government funding to refurbish it, and we were fortunate,” said Keeping.
In conjunction with Gateway Village and government, the town successfully availed of grants and other funds to save and maintain the building. Keeping maintains the town would have been negligent not to take that opportunity.
“It’s our plan in the future to sell it off, hopefully get a potential buyer to create business in the town,” said Keeping. “We’re hoping, as I said, to sell it as a whole piece and we’re actually in negotiations with a couple of potential buyers right now.”
He noted that John Osmond of Codroy Seafoods actually owns one portion of the plant and has over a dozen seasonal workers on staff there.
“Right now, there’s no large industrial space in town,” said Keeping. “Over the years since we’ve had it, rather than see potential developers coming in and going elsewhere or not getting off the ground at all, we rented it out on short term leases.”
Keeping maintains that the town only sought to provide temporary space for these types of businesses that had no viable alternative with the private sector.
“That’s being progressive here you know, looking at the town for potential employment, whether it’s short- term or long-term.”