The Sound Community Hub officially opened for business in August 2017 in Parry Sound, Ontario. The Hub combines housing with community services and community space. It’s creation involved renovation to an existing school building to create 45 units of below-market rental housing and community space, and a new building with a further 10 units slated for completion by late 2017.
The story of the Sound Community Hub is about community-building based on strong local relationships and an unwavering focus on the vision. It features two housing providers, Parry Sound Non-Profit Housing and Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit Housing, with 85 and 34 units in their respective portfolios. These housing providers have been supported in their work by the Town of Parry Sound and the District Social Services Administration Board, a responsive developer, connections and relationships in community, and new Hub partners. (The Sound Community Hub video is available here.)
The Hub Lead
Parry Sound Non-Profit Housing Corporation (Parry Sound Non-Profit) – is an established housing provider with 30 years of experience in managing 127 units of affordable housing in Parry Sound, including 45 units added in July 2017 when the Hub opened. Their mission is to meet the housing needs of current and new residents of Parry Sound with low or limited incomes. PSNPH is the lead proponent for the development of the hub; they share property management staff with Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit Housing.
The Development Partner
CGV Developments (CGV) – is a design/build contractor located in Cochrane, Ontario. CGV was hired to renovate the school building, but also played a role in financing the project and supporting local economic trades and suppliers: its contributions went well beyond the typical builder role.
The Town of Parry Sound (Town) – was supportive throughout the planning and development process. The Chief Administrative Officer and Town Planner worked with the Hub team and developer around zoning, severance, development agreement, tax rates and road allowance. This relationship was strengthened because the Mayor of Parry Sound also serves as the Chair of the Parry Sound Non-Profit Housing Corporation.
District of Parry Sound Social Services Administration Board (District Services Board) – played a number of roles in the development of the Hub; first and foremost it negotiated and purchased the land from the Near North District School Board. In their role as designated Housing Manager, the District provided advice regarding the application for funding under the Investment in Affordable Housing Program (IAP).
The District Services Board is also the designated Children’s Services Manager and in this capacity it has signed on as one of the Hub service partners and will operate the Parry Sound Ontario Early Years Child and Family Centre program from the Hub.
On Site Program Partners
Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit Housing Corporation (Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit) – was founded in 1985 and provides 34 units of affordable housing in the Parry Sound area. In the summer of 2017 they received approval from Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services to build an additional 10 units in a separate building on the site. Construction will be completed in late 2017. Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit shares in the property management function with Parry Sound Non-Profit.
One Kids Place – has a mission to provide community-based rehabilitation and related support services for children and youth up to 19 years in Muskoka, Nipissing and Parry Sound. As the designated provincial Children’s Treatment Centre, OKP has service locations in each community. In July 2017, OKP relocated their Parry Sound services to The Sound Community Hub.
Parry Sound Ontario Early Years Child and Family Centre (Early Years Child and Family) – is operated by the District of Parry Sound Social Services Administration. It is one of a number of Ontario Early Years Child and Family Centres and is focused on early childhood development for children 0 – 6 years and their parents/caregivers. The Centre has two main program sites and a number of satellite locations; their new location opened at The Sound Community Hub in July 2017.
“Communities need all types of housing development including affordable housing, that gives people security, is affordable and helps them grow roots in the community,” and this is the focus of the Mayor, Jamie McGarvey and others involved in the Sound Community Hub development.
The project goal centered on addressing the need for affordable housing in Parry Sound. Parry Sound Non-Profit sought opportunities in Parry Sound to re-use existing buildings in a cost-effective and energy-efficient manner and to create a sense of community. Howard Wesley, General Manager of Parry Sound Non-Profit and Sky Panipak, Project Manager for Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit agree that “rather than having just a regular community hub or community centre, we wanted our new hub to have housing and services in one building.”
The Hub is on a centrally located 3.6 acre lot within walking distance of many services. The site includes a 43,000 square foot school, built in 1966, converted into 45 affordable housing units (bachelors, one and two-bedrooms), as well as a gymnasium, space for community members’ use and/or programs, and community services.
At this time, One Kids Place and the Parry Sound Early Years Child and Family Centre are tenants and service partners of the hub. Plans are underway to welcome a third partner in the fall of 2017. A local faith organization has rented the space on Sundays for their youth work.
Space has been allocated on the site for an additional 10-unit building to be developed in 2017 by Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit Housing.
Check out these CBC radio interviews to learn more about The Sound Hub:
Mayor Jamie McGarvey talks to Wei Chen on CBC Radio Ontario Today, April 11, 2017. The interview starts at 10:08 (to 16:48).
Listen to Darrin O’Brien, Chair of the Development Committee talk about the Hub development on CBC Radio show Checkup with host Duncan McCue.
This section highlights interesting or unique elements of the journey to develop and operate the hub, rather than a comprehensive, beginning to end, story.
Demonstrating Community Need
Both housing providers were aware of the very significant unmet need for affordable housing in Parry Sound. Aside from the affordable housing waiting list maintained by the District Services Board and demand for their Parry Sound and Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit housing units, their evidence was largely anecdotal and consisted of stories about people couch surfing and overcrowding. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) require a local population of 10,000 to conduct a housing study. The Ministry of Housing instructed their Housing Managers to conduct studies assessing local housing needs. The 2011 report provided much of the evidence needed to support efforts to provide more affordable housing.
Several principles and guidelines were established by the Parry Sound Non-Profit Board at the beginning of the planning and development process:
- Keep the existing footprint of the building and maintain the internal walls and structural elements as a way of reducing/controlling costs – for example by creating apartments out of the old classrooms and keeping intact wide hallways.
- Reduce costs by creating small, good-quality units targeted at seniors, working people and college students, to compare favourably with market units/rents available to these groups.
- The business plan for the Hub should be sustainable without government subsidy. Note: a later decision was made to take advantage of the Investment in Affordable Housing program (IAP) resulting in 10 units with lower rent.
- The project must be energy efficient and minimize operating costs. A later trade-off was necessary because energy efficiency could not be achieved alongside the goal of keeping rents affordable without access to government funding or subsidy and it became secondary to the main focus of affordable housing.
Parry Sound Non-Profit also identified their interest in sourcing community service organizations to rent space, and in partnering with other community groups to make use of hub space. They viewed this as an opportunity to enhance quality of life for hub residents and the community at large.
The Relationship Between the Housing Partners
The two housing providers already had a strong relationship at the outset of the project. Several years back they each realized that they could provide better support to their tenants and their buildings if they cooperated by combining their back-office and sharing resources, including staff and equipment. Recently they jointly purchased a truck!
The housing staff is described by Wesley, General Manager of Parry Sound Non-Profit as “a great group of people who bring different perspectives to issues, listen deeply and ‘bounce around’ ideas and options.” If they are unable to reach a collective decision they bring the matter to their respective Board of Directors.
“Proposal to Add Downtown Apartments” was the headline from a news story following one of two community meetings in which approximately one hundred residents shared their concerns about the plans for the Hub.
Local community concerns varied and included questions about whether the project would go over budget and become a burden on local taxpayers, to worries about parking, traffic and noise, as well as comments about the proposed density and safety concerns related to the mixed-use project.
The housing providers persevered based on their shared vision that all communities need good-quality, safe, affordable housing. They also expressed their belief that the proposed hub would contribute to the community in a positive way. Sky Panipak, the Project Manager for Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit reflected, “We listened, held our ground … and worked past each community objection.”
Parry Sound Non-Profit and Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit already had good reputations in the community. Together they had taken the lead, with their Boards, tenants and other volunteers, in Mission Park and Booth Street Park near their existing residential buildings. After reaching out to businesses and other individuals in the town to raise money, they worked with volunteers to transform the park spaces. Locals were initially skeptical that their efforts would be successful – but when they did succeed, both housing providers built their credibility. Later on, when they said they wanted to redevelop the local hub, local businesses, leaders and partner organizations were “onside and knew that we could do it,” said Wesley, General Manager of Parry Sound Non-Profit.
The Parry Sound Non-Profit Board of Directors was instrumental in the success of the Hub; it provided strong leadership, worked behind the scenes, took risks and didn’t waiver in its support of the concept.
The Board Members came with wide-ranging expertise and backgrounds; each member understood the need for affordable housing and shared a commitment to the vision. “I don’t know if we would have ever completed the development without the board that we had,” commented Jamie McGarvey, Chair of Parry Sound Non-Profit. In addition to strong leadership from the Chair, who, as Mayor of Parry Sound, was well very connected and was able to work behind the scenes to move the process along, the board composition remained relatively stable for the duration, which contributed to its clear focus and success.
The Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit Board of Directors was similarly intent on creating affordable housing in Parry Sound. Most of them are experienced long-term board members with strong connections to the community.
Additional time and effort was required for the two Boards to communicate updates, and seek advice and approve the different stages of the development. Several Board members agree that the last few years have been “a pressure cooker”. Members of both boards are very much looking forward to celebrating their shared success and taking a much-needed break before moving on to their next project!
Financing the Hub
The first step of the financing process entailed Parry Sound Non-Profit asking the District Services Board to purchase the school building and site on their behalf. Agreeing that it was a good opportunity and would benefit the community in multiple ways, District Services Board proceeded to negotiate the purchase from the Near North District School Board. The negotiation process was lengthy and involved arbitration to establish the fair market price. “This was a big hurdle … nonprofit housing providers can’t compete on fair market value,” advised Janet Patterson, the Chief Administrative Officer of the District Services Board. Development plans were put on hold during the long negotiation process. Ultimately it was purchased for $445,000. (A separate attempt to purchase a small neighbouring site from the School Board for use for parking for the Hub was unsuccessful due to cost).
The next step in the process was for Parry Sound Non-Profit to acquire the property so that they could proceed with the Hub development; they didn’t have resources to be able to hold the property indefinitely and worked quickly to line up the redevelopment approvals. While they were sorting through the processes, they rented the school to a production company for six months. The revenues they received from the rental covered the costs of holding the building, including property taxes, utilities, etc., until the development was ready to proceed.
The District Services Board transferred the deed to Parry Sound Non-Profit who negotiated with the developer to finance the building and the redevelopment costs, estimated at $8.5M. In essence, the developer gave a loan to the housing provider. The District Services Board agreed to act as guarantor for that loan. Parry Sound Non-Profit didn’t have assets to support the loans, and as Housing Service Manager, the District was willing to play this important role. Recently, the developer sourced a lower interest rate through a major Canadian bank, and the mortgage has since been transferred to that bank.
Parry Sound Non-Profit established the nonprofit Parry Sound Affordable Housing Development Corporation (Development Corporation) to own and manage the building. The Development Corporation has the same board members as the housing provider. The staff team currently supporting both Parry Sound Non-Profit and Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit will support the Development Corporation.
Financing the 10 Unit Georgian Bay Native Nonprofit Housing Development
Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit has been interested in developing new affordable housing in Parry Sound for a number of years. They had applied to Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services for funding in the past but their applications were not approved.
Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services requires that the housing provider submit site plans, that they own the land and that they recognize the funder as the first name on the title to the land. These issues created hurdles for approval of the application for the Hub site because it was owned by the Development Corporation.
Originally it was thought the Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit housing could be an addition, connected to the existing building. This also wasn’t possible under the funding requirements and a portion of the site had to be severed and then transferred to Georgian Bay. Having applied once again, they successfully secured $1.7 M in funding in early 2017. It was hoped that the land could be sold to Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit for about $300,000 – this would have helped with the Hub finances – however the purchase price would have had a negative impact on the housing provider and their project financials. In the end, the land was severed and transferred for a nominal amount.
Ongoing Financial Sustainability
Financial sustainability is important – one of the guiding principles is that the Hub should be financially viable without ongoing reliance on government grants or other sources of funding. This principle affected some of the decision-making during the development phase.
The main challenge was that project costs had to align with the goals of charging affordable rents, making space available to community partners and, as mentioned, not relying on government grants. Parry Sound Non-Profit limited the scope of the renovations by maintaining the existing walls and building envelope and by working with a builder who understood their concerns around cost and delivered within budget and on time. The capital funding would have gone further and the rents been more affordable had the cost of buying the building and land had been lower.
As noted earlier, 35 of the units are available to the community at 80% of market rent. The remaining 10 units are designated as affordable housing units, with tenants selected from the waiting list managed by the Service Manager.
Instead of a more typical 25-year amortization, the project has negotiated a 35-year period which reduces the annual payments. Partners are asked to commit to the Hub for the long-term and must sign 10-year leases. The partner rents have been described as similar to rent paid in other market leases, although the Parry Sound Non-Profit has been flexible in giving one of the partners a short break on their rent while they pay off the penalty for breaking their commercial lease with another landlord in Parry Sound.
The Hub includes a shared workspace, an opportunity for local residents and entrepreneurs to rent shared office space, including a mailbox, workstation with Wi-Fi, and access to meeting rooms at a reasonable monthly rent. This is an opportunity for the Hub to raise additional revenues, and also to support the local business community and create an environment where service partners and business partners can connect and perhaps work together. The Development Corporation has also identified other revenue-producing opportunities including renting out space for events.
Operating the Hub
The Development Corporation staff an onsite office during the week.
Parry Sound Non-Profit sought various Hub partners willing to share and support community use of the space. Early plans included the Native Friendship Centre as a tenant although they ultimately decided to remain in their current space. Discussions are ongoing with the Native Friendship Centre about the opportunity to work with the Hub partners on service and program initiatives. Ray Marshall, Chair of Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit, can see the opportunity to integrate Indigenous culture through “smudging, story telling, native teachings at the hub. We might even run a language class.”
One Kids Place and Early Years Child and Family Centre have each signed 10-year leases with the Hub with a provision that program spaces may be used by others when not being used by the partner. In addition to rent payments, partners must contribute to costs associated with maintaining shared space, including washrooms, the kitchen, staff room, etc. “We feel and see the excitement in the community about the Hub. The opportunity to move into the Hub was one we couldn’t pass up. There is a sense of welcome, we are part of a holistic, community oriented service, and it is cost effective,” commented Denis Filiatrault, Executive Director of One Kids Place. Janet Patterson from the District Services Board agreed, “It made sense to help build the community and hub model and it made good program sense to put services there, where they can be easily accessed.“
The intent is to have regular partner meetings and to decide on issues and opportunities as a group. Partners will interview potential new partners to ensure that new additions are a good fit. Wesley from Parry Sound Non-Profit and Panipak from Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit agree “It’s really neat … like a family – we’re all working hard to help people.”
While there isn’t a formal partnership agreement yet, discussions are underway about developing one that will set out responsibilities, expectations and basic guidelines for the Hub. One partner has formal experience with Partnership Agreements and has shared examples with the Development Corporation. Wesley noted that there is also a plan underway to establish a Tenant Association, based on the recognition that “tenants give us the best ideas” and an ongoing commitment to engage them in the Hub community.
Benefits And Value Added
There are many benefits to a collaborative and partner-based hub.
As described earlier, Parry Sound Non-Profit shares staff with another nonprofit housing provider, Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit Housing. As mentioned, Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit was able to access provincial funding for an additional 10 units of housing in a standalone building on the site. CGV Development will build the housing using prefabricated walls and tresses; construction is expected to be completed in November 2017.
Parry Sound is a popular cottage and vacation destination in the summer months and employment is more plentiful. Jobs are harder to find in the winter months. CGV Development wisely organized the construction/renovation work to take place in the winter months to provide jobs to local trades. It was reported that they purchased up to 80% of all materials used in the renovation from local sources. This was a real win for everyone, as it brought economic benefit to the wider community along with the many benefits that will arise from the additional housing and community space.
All Hub Service Partners are required to perform leasehold improvements to adapt the space to their needs. Funding is a challenge for the partners, as it is for any community service provider. In addition to using monies from fundraising and other sources, one of the partners was able to negotiate an arrangement whereby the developer would complete the work and the partner reimburse them over time, based on a payment plan. The partner hopes to secure Ministry of Children and Youth Services funding to cover this work.
Partners are committed to the success of Hub – one group provided furniture and video conferencing equipment for the meeting room to be used by the other partners and the community. There is talk of hosting this year’s Chamber of Commerce Social Night at the Hub as a way of introducing it to community members, as well as to highlight the good work being done by nonprofit organizations in Parry Sound and to encourage support for the Hub.
One Kids Place brought the Smilezone Foundation to the Hub. This nonprofit organization brings design experts into communities to transform spaces oriented to children – over one weekend, just like in the TV shows! The result is that the gym, entrance and Early Years Centre of the hub have been totally transformed (admittedly it took a bit longer than a weekend, but the result is truly amazing!) The new space bring smiles to the faces of the many children who use the space – and to the staff who work there.
Lessons Learned and Advice
The Sound Community Hub is living its philosophy about partnership and community. Partners feel a sense of welcome, and have genuine opportunities to build community and deliver a better quality of integrated services in partnership with others. Staff have welcomed their move to the Hub and are “invigorated and encouraged” by the atmosphere and opportunities. There is much excitement and anticipation around what the future holds.
Relationships are the foundation of the Hub. The idea to jointly develop the Hub was grounded in a strong relationship between the shared staff and an already established partnership at the board level. Both Parry Sound Non-Profit and Georgian Bay Native Non-Profit had leveraged their strong relationships within the Parry Sound community and were able to attract partners with a similar philosophy and approach to sharing and working in partnership on community-building initiatives.
The two housing partners established vision and goals for the Hub early on. The vision of providing affordable housing in Parry Sound, and the set of principles that were established were critical to the success of the project; they gave clear focus to the work and guided decision-making.
Strong and consistent leadership is an essential ingredient in the development process. The leaders, on both boards of directors and from the small staff team supporting both housing providers, had strong connections in the community and municipalities, good reputations for delivering, and were able to leverage relationships to creatively respond to challenges in each stage of development. The leaders were resourceful and persistent in seeking solutions to problems or barriers, and in the face of local community opposition to the Hub development.
Involving CVG Developments was, in hindsight, a very smart decision. Not only did this design/build contractor deliver on time and on budget, they played a key role in the project financing and even held the mortgage for the building. They also supported the local economy through hiring local trades and workers during the off-season, and purchased most of the building materials through local business. The experience at the Sound Community Hub makes clear that opportunities to leverage major development contracts for community economic benefit are worth pursuing.