As the end of their lease draws nearer, Islands Trust staff are still searching for a new home for the busy Salt Spring Island office.
But given few choices within the island’s limited commercial space market, and facing high costs for upgrading what there is to fit their needs, some trustees are asking whether it’s time for the land use authority to purchase, rather than rent — or perhaps, one trustee suggested, even leave Salt Spring altogether.
This past summer, BC Hydro — which owns the building currently being used by Trust staff on Lower Ganges Road — gave notice it would not renew the lease, planning to end its agreement with the Islands Trust on July 24.
Since then, staff have considered various options to meet its needs for space to collaborate, store documents, operate servers and greet the public as members of the community navigate the often-complex processes that surround the Islands Trust’s mission.
But pickings are slim, and the clock is ticking.
“On July 1, we need to be somewhere,” said CAO Russ Hotsenpiller, who told the trust’s Financial Planning Committee (FPC) that despite staff efforts and engaging the services of a realtor, finding a medium-sized office space that ticked all their boxes had been challenging.
In fact, as of the committee’s meeting Wednesday, Jan. 24, staff had identified just three potential sites — none of which were actually office spaces, and all required renovations.
Those renovations are estimated to cost more than $250,000, according to Hotsenpiller, depending on the site. One lacks sufficient ventilation and a connected HVAC system, for example, and another currently has no plumbing whatsoever. That dollar figure had several trustees wondering whether the Trust should invest in its own property, rather than spending money improving someone else’s.
“So we’ve been at this local government thing on Salt Spring for 50 years,” said Denman Island trustee David Graham, “and I presume we’re going to be there for another 50. Why wouldn’t we consider the political advantage of having a purpose-built local government building that offers the services that the Salt Spring Island has been offering the community — a place to gather, where trustees can meet with constituents, et cetera?”
Noting what he called a large contingent of residents who feel the Trust itself may not be the “right government” for Salt Spring, Graham said he also felt moving as often as they seemed to might not send the right message.
“It does not look like we’re a serious local government, to be quite honest,” said Graham, “when we keep moving every time the owner says ‘no, this isn’t working for me.’”
Hotsenpiller pointed out that while there are very few places available to lease, there are even fewer commercial properties offered for purchase — and none, according to their research, with structures that would meet their office needs.
“So if there was a purchasing regime in place, it would be a bare land construction kind of scenario,” said Hotsenpiller. “And we have had discussion with both the CRD and the North Salt Spring Waterworks District about future collaborations, both of which were positive. But neither is imminent.”
Hotsenpiller said that pursuing that sort of partnership — a notion of all local governments under one roof often mused upon by Salt Spring CRD director Gary Holman — would be a protracted, strategic direction for the Trust, with a two- to five-year timeframe.
With a deadline approaching — and a shared understanding that there was no possibility of completing a new build before July — several trustees wondered whether a temporary move off the island to Sidney would make sense.
Mayne Island trustee David Maude pointed out the same questions were being asked with consideration to moving the Gabriola office across to Nanaimo.
And Salt Spring trustee Jamie Harris said he thought perhaps a move to Oak Bay could be permanent.
“It seems at first glance that it would be more than workable for all the Southern Gulf Islands to move there, including Salt Spring,” said Harris, noting the ability for planning, clerical work and even meetings to be done electronically.
Hotsenpiller said in terms of foot traffic, it was the busiest office for the Islands Trust. And Lasqueti Island trustee Tim Peterson, who chairs Salt Spring’s Local Trust Committee, said he hears frustration from islanders whenever that office isn’t open.
“There is definitely a strong contingent on Salt Spring that wants an office there,” said Peterson. “And I really do like the idea that instead of shelling out big money for leases that we consider purchasing. However, time is of the essence here.”
Committee members seemed to agree, choosing to recommend leaving funding in place for improving a leased space — for the moment — and making it clear they were holding out hope another alternative would present itself.
“I’m up for crossing my fingers,” quipped Hotsenpiller.