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Qualicum Beach arts site sits empty

The old bus garage site, now owned by the Town of Qualicum Beach, stands empty and is only being used for town-related functions, such as the recent fire camp. - Steven Heywood photo
The old bus garage site, now owned by the Town of Qualicum Beach, stands empty and is only being used for town-related functions, such as the recent fire camp.
— image credit: Steven Heywood photo

A debate is brewing on what, exactly, the Town of Qualicum Beach is going to do with the former school bus garage, now sitting empty in the downtown.

The town bought the property from School District 69 (Qualicum) for $1.5 million in August, 2011 — funded through the town’s reserve accounts and by selling off some other properties it wasn’t using.

The town had hoped to pay much less —  $800,000 — for the land, as part of a land swap deal with the school district. Instead, the school district chose a site in Errington to relocate their bus facility. According to mayor Teunis Westbroek, that left the town’s hands tied: let the property be sold off to a developer, or buy it and another piece of land that the school district had suddenly bundled into the package.

He said the council of the day knew there was more value in the land as a public amenity, so they found a way to pay for it.

Now, a new council and a new study on the site is bringing its usefulness as a public space into question. But the mayor feels, even if the town doesn’t ever recoup its costs, the property will benefit citizens well into the future.

“It is a community centerpiece,” Westbroek said. “It has the potential to help people feel more connected, whether it’s an open public space or something more.”

Early talk about the site created buzz over the possibility of building an arts and culture facility there, or perhaps a village green. Westbroek said he would like to see something in that vein there.

However, a report this month from Coriolis Consulting casts doubt on the future of such large ideas.

Presented at council’s March 13 meeting, the report makes five conclusions — the majority of which indicate the troubles with the town recovering its costs to buy the property. Parking, too, played a big role, as Coriolis noted that limitations in this area may curtail serious discussion on a full-fledged arts and culture facility there.

While town councillors like Dave Willie suggested after the March 13 meeting that the focus has to be on recovering the $1.5 million spent on the property — even suggesting that the endeavour itself is questionable, considering the final price tag — Westbroek said there is public value in such an investment.

“This is building a town,” he explained. “This is looking 50 years into the future, as it helps us create a sense of place. An identity.”

Asked if the price paid for the land bothered him, Westbroek said no.

“I think that property is priceless. It’s a good piece of property for us to hold.”

Yet he did say that building a full-fledged arts and culture facility of some kind is probably on the back burner, as council tackles other priorities, such as the infill of downtown business properties. That, however, doesn’t bother him as he always thought of this project to be a long-term affair.

Ideas abound for the site, and were noted during the town’s last official community plan process. A village green, bandshell, residential and commercial space and tie-ins with The Old School House arts centre next door, have all been brought up.

The town is also working on its arts and culture plan, which will further refine short and long term plans. A planning session is coming up in May.

Westbroek said it will take time to find the proper mix of uses for the bus garage site. He said the previous council thought they had a long-term plan set — to go to the private sector once they had the land, to see what ideas would come of it.

The Coriolis report echoes this desire, but adds serious limitations to that plan that could mean the site stands empty for months — or years — to come. Unless recovering the land cost is not important.

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