No easy answers for Sunny Cove Camp problems

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Some members of town council are loathe to part with Sunny Cove Camp, but there are no easy answers at hand for what to do with the property as it continues to slide towards disaster.

At Monday night’s meeting of town council, the property, located east of town limits, was a topic of much discussion among council and interim CAO Travis Rob. The meeting agenda had the campgrounds included in order to determine if a Request for Proposal (RFP) would be prepared to start the process of divesting the town from the camp, which it has tried to do previously. Rob noted that while the camp has sat empty over the course of several years the municipality has done minimal upkeep, but time and wear have taken their tolls and there are significant upgrades and repairs that are needed at the property.

“This is a matter that we’ve discussed a number of times around the council table over the last couple of years,” Rob said.

“We have an asset that’s well outside of town boundaries that since COVID has continued to sit vacant. We’ve been doing little things to it while it has been vacant, maintaining the grass cutting, just doing the bare minimum upkeep to it while it’s been closed. Coming into this year we have nothing in our operating budget in terms of being prepared to operate that site, so it’s looking like we’ll have another summer with the property sitting vacant. There are a number of substantial capital repairs and upgrades that need to happen to the property, and really this would be the perfect year to undertake some of that work, however, we don’t have anything in our capital budget to start working on that.”

Rob went on to note that Russell Hall in particular is at a critical point. Without significant repairs on the building, Rob said it will shortly reach a point where it is no longer possible to save.

“In talking to some people in the field of log buildings, they believe it is repairable,” Rob said.

“However, the repairs would be extremely costly, and it is very much on the cusp of being too far gone to be repairable. to bring it up to the level of safety where I would feel comfortable having patrons in the building you’re looking at basically lifting the building up, putting a new foundation underneath it, taking the bottom two courses of logs off, replacing them, new windows, doors, egress ramps, etcetera. It’s somewhere in the ballpark of half a million dollars to get Russell Hall up to a safe state. That’s really just the starting of it all.”

Rob warned that he felt Russell Hall had less than 12 months of life left to it, noting to councillor David Kircher that should council decide to hold off on a decision for one more year, his next report would be to inform council of the need to tear the building down.

The most significant hurdle facing the property is that upfront cost to renovations. The town has not budgeted for the repairs of the Sunny Cove property, and with overall revenues for the town down because of the loss of the mill, there are fewer dollars available to go around. While some members of council expressed their desires to see the town hold onto ownership of the property, there are concerns about how much it has and will cost the town to operate it each year. Rob said that running Sunny Cove in 2018 and 2019, the last two years that it saw use, cost the town about $35,000, and was significantly understaffed. In order to properly staff the camp and meet all the applicable labour laws, Rob estimated each year would see the town out $50,000 to $60,000. The town has also spent roughly $8,000 annually in upkeep on the property, but Rob noted a majority of that funding went towards repairing and replacing the water system on the property following incorrect removal and winterizing each year.

Additionally, the remaining buildings on the property also need considerable upgrades and future fitting to AODA standards, which could push the overall cost of the renovations at Sunny Cove well above $1-million.

Councillor Steven Maki asked about whether a study of the property had ever been done to establish maximum revenue possibilities, even if that meant tearing the buildings down to allow for alternate uses. Rob said he was not aware of any such study being done since the town took ownership of Sunny Cove, but that none of the options available to the town would be free.

“In talking with [Recreation and Culture Manager Tyler Young] about the property and site, there are some opportunities there, none of them are free though,” he said.

“You’re looking at multimillion dollars to redevelop it into some other something, whatever that might be, with the hope that you’re going to generate oodles more revenue. It’s a risk. Not saying we couldn’t investigate it, but it is a risk that whatever you redevelop it to, that the market is going to support it.”

Some outcry was made ahead of Monday night’s meeting, with a few town residents standing in front of the Civic Centre doors with signs advocating for the saving of the Sunny Cove property. Rob noted he has had conversations with other entities who have expressed interest in the property, and who would continue to operate the property in line with the way the town, and Kiwanis Club before them, have historically operated the camp grounds. However, he also noted that those entities would be seeking ownership of the property if they were to be the ones to invest significant funds into repairing and upgrading the grounds and buildings, something the town has discussed in the past in addition to the possibility of retaining ownership but leasing operations of Sunny Cove to another group.

Councillors McTaggart, Maki, Olson, Brunetta and Kircher voted against allowing the process to go back to the RFP stage to look for a new owner for the Sunny Cove property, while Mayor Andrew Hallikas and councillor Mike Behan voted in favour. Both noted that the town continuing to subsidize the property at a loss meant there was less money to help support other town programs and properties, particularly as the property lies outside of town limits and isn’t easily accessible to large portions of the population the way other town resources are, and Behan stressed that finding another owner for Sunny Cove who could afford to run and maintain Sunny Cove while still holding to the original vision of the Kiwanis Club was still saving the property.

No final decision regarding Sunny Cove Camp was made at the meeting, and no clear direction was given on what next steps regarding the property should be.