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Of old buildings and new beginnings

The key to a successful community hub is flexibility. Flexibility in design, mandate and delivery.
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Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO, Northern Policy Institute

On May 1 and 2 in Toronto, the province will be hosting a major conference on community hubs. Advocates for community hubs, operators of community hubs, users and funders of community hubs will all gather to discuss best practices in funding, regulating, defining and delivering community hubs. 

But, what is a community hub? Community hubs are usually seen as the latest iteration of an age-old concept: that similar services, or services for similar clients, should be delivered in close proximity. 

Fortunately, Karen Pitre, the Premier’s Advisor on Community Hubs, has a bit broader vision than that. When asked what a community hub is she usually responds with some version of “I don’t know.” This is followed quickly with a random sample of very different hub models: co-location, online delivery, co-ordinated service delivery, service grouping. As I understand it, her view is that anything that works in a community and that links services (like services or unlike services) together, should be considered a hub.

It might make for an awkward sound bite and would be hard to explain absent an endless list of examples, but I like her approach. (Full disclosure, I am a member of something called the Community Hubs Resource Network Capacity Development Reference Group, chaired by Ms. Pitre.) The perspective I bring to this discussion is as a service user and someone who has spent much of their career assessing program effectiveness. I have seen hubs in action. Some work, while others do not.

As I told a gathering of very energetic community leaders in Temiskaming Shores a few weeks ago, the key to a successful community hub is flexibility. Flexibility in design, mandate and delivery. The province can best ensure that the majority of community hubs become successful in Ontario by taking three steps. 

First, don’t try to rigidly define what a community hub is or how it is to be judged as a success. Success measures should already be built into the various programs that are being “hubbed” together. If the programs meet their individual measures for effectiveness and efficiency, or at least exceed their previous performance on those marks, then the hub should be considered a success. Micromanaging by setting key performance indicators or mandating logic models from Queen’s Park will almost guarantee any savings in time and money will be eaten up in administration. For that matter, the hub should be free to include federal, provincial, municipal, not-for-profit and even private services where it makes sense for the community and where space allows.

Second, the treatment of excess-to-needs provincial property needs to be addressed. This is both a simple, and a complex, problem. Basically, in many cases we are talking about repurposing old schools or other public buildings. These facilities have usually depreciated their full value; i.e. they are (from an accounting perspective) worth little or nothing, yet we mandate that they must be sold for fair market value. This is all too often too large of a barrier for other not-for-profits or public institutions to take on. As a result, the asset does not get passed off, stays on the books showing no capital value, and incurs ongoing operating losses (heat, insurance and so on). If we want more, and more robust, community hubs, this transition needs to be made easier and cheaper for the Hub without hurting the bottom line of the school board or current property holder.

Third, the province spends millions, indeed hundreds of millions, of dollars each year on new infrastructure. We love to build new things. But how about some leadership on the whole reduce, reuse, recycle concept? Instead of allocating 100 per cent of our infrastructure spend to maintenance or replacement, we could allocate a small portion of it to repurpose infrastructure. We could even start with a Northern pilot fund perhaps. Say $5 million for repurposing excess-to-needs capital assets to vibrant Northern community hubs.

Given the tens of billions the federal government is spending on infrastructure, perhaps they too might be coaxed to participate in a pilot looking at maximizing the value and utility of what we already have? Turning old buildings into new beginnings.



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