Downtown Mission purchase of Windsor Public Library Central branch falls through

The Downtown Mission has announced its deal to move into the Central branch of the Windsor Public Library building has fallen through.

Executive director Ron Dunn said the organization was not able to secure a mortgage because of a funding deficit over a two-year period, adding the location has been sold to a new developer.

“Since we made the announcement of the library in March, you could start to see the decline in donations from certain groups. So we just had a deficit — at a time when the need has exploded,” Dunn said. “”It left us in a position to have to quickly come up with a new plan.”

That alternative plan came with the help of two donors, allowing the Mission to purchase another property at 819 Ouellette Ave. for $1.2 million — with plans to construct a new building there.

On Feb. 28, the Central branch will be “assigned” — or handed over — to the new developer. That same day, the Downtown Mission will take over the vacant lot at 819 Ouellette Ave.

The Downtown Mission was originally expected to take over the Central library, but that plan has collapsed. (CBC File Photo)

“That got us back our deposit money which we’re really happy about. We’re not losing any money,” he said. “It’s lemonade out of lemons. We were out of time. We were out of options. So getting our money back was helpful.”

The original plan would have seen 50 apartment-style “dwellings” constructed in the Central branch, providing affordable housing for people who really need it.

“There’s 6,000 people on a waiting list [for housing] right now … 50 apartments is not a game-changer. But it’s a game-changer for 50 people.”

Due to a lack of space, those units won’t be a part of the new build.

“While we’re really sad about the loss of the housing components, which were so desperately needed, it does remove a nearly a $9-million mortgage we would’ve had,” said Dunn. “We’ll be able to build a small building there based on the generosity of our donors.”

Why funding fell through

The Downtown Mission’s current location on Victoria Avenue was built in 2000 “to help 100 people a day.” But according to Dunn, the Mission regularly serves about 908 meals a day on average.

“The truth is, we underestimated how angry some people would be about us purchasing the library,” said Dunn, adding some didn’t want the Downtown Mission based on Ouellette Avenue, while others don’t want them anywhere.

“Since we made the announcement, we’ve seen a decline in support,” he added.

Built in 2000, the Downtown Mission’s current location on Victoria Avenue was only meant to serve about 100 people a night, according to Dunn. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

The library was sold to the Downtown Mission in May 2018 for $3.6 million.

Dunn acknowledged the concerns from library users who were not happy about the sale, but said that decision wasn’t up to him.

“You can’t buy what’s not for sale,” said Dunn, adding there was major fallout from the purchase.

“We also had people that said, ‘If you can afford a library, you don’t need our 20 dollars.’ But what they failed to understand and what we’ve been trying to tell them is that we’re going to get a mortgage just like everybody else.”

Dunn added with their current funds, the Downtown Mission could still afford to purchase the Central branch. However, without being able to secure a mortgage, renovations there would not have been possible.

Tap on the tweet below to watch Dunn’s full announcement:

 

Last March, the Mission set a fundraising goal of $5.1 million, with the aim of moving all programming and services from the Victoria Avenue location to the Central library by June 2020.

Dunn said, during that time, he approached council for an extension on securing a mortgage, but that was not granted.

“We raised more money in 2019 than we did in 2018. The challenge is the need far outgrew our ability to raise money,” said Dunn, referring to the Downtown Mission as “ground zero” for the housing crisis and mental health service needs.

In recent months, the Mission has reduced spending, staff and programming, Dunn said.

“To not have a mortgage should say to our supporters that we’re being fiscally responsible,” he said.

An emotional announcement

Speaking to CBC News following Thursday’s press conference, Dunn fought back tears discussing the “tireless work” his team did to design the Central library under the Mission’s vision.

Every wall, every element and the programming that went around it was a result of many years of work,” said Dunn, adding “people vote with their money.”

“I really believed that I was following a plan that was supported. It became clear that it was not,” he said.

Dunn says the Downtown Mission is ‘ground zero’ for the housing crisis and need for mental health and addictions services. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Dunn said the Downtown Mission will still continue to serve its clients in a “smaller, scaled-back capacity,” continuing to offer programs like giving hair cuts, providing counselling and operating a food bank.

With its current location on Victoria Avenue having already been sold to a private buyer for $900,000, Dunn said the Downtown Mission has between eight months and a year — starting Sept. 2020 — to move out.

Referring to the yet-to-be-built property on 819 Ouellette Avenue as “condensed,” Dunn said it will include a new kitchen and dining room, an office space for counselling and a small area for people to worship — all mortgage-free.

The estimated size of the property is pegged at about 6,000 to 8,000 square feet.

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