In June, nine years after the last attempt, Salt Spring property owners will be asked to vote on whether to approve construction of a new fire hall, a vote that is required even though the project can be completed without increasing taxes. This article describes the process that led to the proposed design.
By BRUCE CAMERON
President, Return On Insight
In 1959 when Fire Hall #1 was completed in Ganges, archive photos show that it sat alone at the entrance to a road leading to Mouat’s and the coast guard dock, with the harbour beach on either side.
In front of the fire hall, work would soon begin to fill in the harbour and level the ground in preparation for construction of what is now called Gasoline Alley. Behind the fire hall, truckloads of rock from excavation of the proposed Long Harbour ferry terminal were being deposited to create the commercial area where Thrifty’s, Shipstones and the Tree House Café now sit.
The contours of Ganges Harbour may have changed, but other things have not. Tourists are still drawn to our idyllic laid-back island for its markets and menagerie of colourful characters. We are still debating how we should be governed all these years later. And the need for a firefighting force remains as strong as ever.
The island has changed dramatically over six decades, but the island’s emergency response centre has remained headquartered in a building that has steadily become insufficient to the task. The need to build a new modern fire hall has been recognized for many years, but although plans were proposed in 2013, gaining community support for construction of a new facility proved elusive.
The board of trustees of the Salt Spring Island Fire Protection District (also known as Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue or SSIFR) took the lessons learned from the unsuccessful referendum of 2013 to heart, initiating a public review process starting with convening a Fire Rescue Advisory Committee in 2018. That committee took the first steps toward the goal of building a new fire hall, commissioning an independent third-party expert to assess the state of the current fire hall. The FireWise Consulting report in March 2018 concluded that, based on operational challenges, space requirements and the location of the old fire hall in a seismically threatened area, which becomes congested at times (think Saturday market days), “the SSIFR move immediately to . . . develop a new fire hall.”
Internally, the SSIFPD board began to put plans in place to build for tomorrow, setting aside reserve funds to enable construction of a new fire hall, and initiating discussions with the Capital Regional District to monetize the value of the old fire hall location. By 2021, architects, planners and consultants were engaged to provide the necessary expertise to bring to life practical plans for a new fire hall that the whole community could support.
But what will Salt Spring support? That is where market research comes in. My firm, Return On Insight, conducted a representative survey early in 2022, examining how residents feel about fire services and facilities. Full results can be viewed online at saltspringfire.com, including the survey questions and data for those inclined to pore over cross tabulations. For those not so inclined, here is a summary of what we found:
• SSIFR is well regarded when it comes to responding to emergencies, not only fires, but also medical emergencies, rescues and the response to incidents related to natural disasters like windstorms, wildfires and floods.
• Awareness is lower regarding steps the organization has taken to put aside reserves and manage its budget to enable the building of a new fire hall, so we recommended highlighting those moves, in particular the fact that $3 million in reserve funds will be available to defray building costs of a new fire hall.
• Almost all islanders acknowledge the need to replace the aging Fire Hall #1.
• Despite a complement of under 100 members, most residents know someone who is on the force, so we are reminding people of that deep community connection.
• When it comes to designing a new fire hall, residents are most concerned about costs, but they also care about eco-friendly actions that need to be taken at the site, including protecting riparian zones and incorporating rainwater catchment, and building connective pathways from Brinkworthy through the proposed site, located next to Kutatas Winery and across from Foxglove.
• With respect to the estimated project costs of $13.7 million, almost three quarters of respondents thought that the range of building costs per square foot for comparable emergency response centre projects ($900 to $1,350) seemed reasonable.
• The research also provided direction for the skilled team of architects and designers, gauging reactions to several proposed designs and assigning comparative costs and tax implications for each one. While aesthetics matter to many, keeping costs low was the paramount concern.
• Ultimately, the research found that if a new firehall can be constructed requiring no new taxes (which the current board is committed to achieving), a referendum to approve borrowing costs of $9.7 million will be approved by a majority of residents.
That referendum to approve the project is planned for June, with mail-in ballots going out to all ratepayers early in the month and receipt due by June 30.
The board of trustees, management, architects and project planners have been applying the lessons learned from community feedback, continually fine-tuning plans. Throughout the design process, the floor plan for the new fire hall has been reduced to 11,500 square feet, down 36 per cent from the 2013 proposal.
Public meetings will be held to review detailed cost estimates in May. An ongoing series of meetings is being organized to consult with stakeholders prior to the referendum vote, including discussions with neighbours, business owners, elected officials, public boards and staff, First Nations, emergency response personnel, service clubs and other community organizations.
An open house has been scheduled for Thursday, April 28 from 6 to 9 p.m., serving refreshments and snacks, at the old Fire Hall #1. It may be a good time to say farewell to the old fire hall as a fire station. However, if residents vote “yes” to building a new fire hall, the old hall may yet live on as a year-round indoor market space in the heart of Ganges willage.
Bruce Cameron, a Salt Spring resident who leads a research and strategy firm called Return On Insight, has been hired to coordinate the referendum campaign on behalf of the Salt Spring Island Fire Protection District.