Prince Albert Historical Society
“The prosperity that followed the second World War put increasing pressure on adding to the infrastructure of the City, which had remained relatively unchanged since 1914. The West Hill expanded and in 1959 Crescent Heights was opened up and in 1961 Goshen place was begun. Staff increased and was unionized and room had to be found for a Coffee room. Larger quarters for the Welfare Department and the Engineers were needed. Space was rented in the Herald Building and later in the old Bank of Ottawa Building. Two attempts were made to build a new City Hall. One, where Marquis Towers stands, had reached the stage where the land was ready and the cost established at less than half a million dollars. It was defeated by the Civic Affairs Association led by Frank Chester. Another attempt by a local businessman to use the City Hall park site for a mall of shops with the City Offices upstairs never got off the ground.”
When I was doing my research for my last column, Prince Albert’s Town Hall, I came across the above quotation in a file in the Bill Smiley Archives. The speech was filed with other documents pertaining to the ceremony held in 1990 when our Arts Centre was officially designated as a National Historic Site. Although no name is attached to this original typed copy of the speech, evidence within the speech itself, as well as external evidence, strongly suggests that it was a speech delivered by a former City Commissioner, Joe Oliver.
It is not surprising that I did not remember these failures to secure a new City Hall as at the time I was not yet in my teens. But even older members of the Historical Society, some of whom who were employed by the city in the 1960s, were unable to recall these events.
The first mention I could find with respect to “the mall of shops with the City Offices upstairs” occurred in a Daily Herald article on October 20th, 1961. The story was headlined “Propose Unique Plan For A New City Hall”. On behalf of four unidentified investors, all said to be local businessmen, a representative of the John S. Fowlie Limited realty company brought the plan to City Council. It was suggested that the City should sell the area occupied by City Hall, the City Hall park, and the police station (then located across Avenue B from the designated site) to these investors. They would then build a mall (or arcade) on the site which would house stores and other commercial outlets on the ground floor, and provide “sufficient and suitable areas for the requirement of the city administration” which would be rented to the city on a lease basis. The parking requirements for City Hall, at least for staff if not necessarily for visitors, would be provided in either an underground or overhead parking lot.
This arrangement, according to the proposal, would require no capital expenditure on the part of the City, thereby allowing them to concentrate on the provision of other identified City needs such as a new police station, a new fire hall, and a community centre.
According to the proposal, paying an estimated $40,000 a year for rent and $5,000 for maintenance would result in savings for the City amounting to $27,400 annually. There would also be an immediate injection of $110,000 in capital as a result of the sale of the property which, if invested, would earn $1,450,000 in twenty years. There would also be increased property taxes and business licence income from the new businesses which would locate in the mall.
It was also suggested to Council that the proposed building, anticipated to cost $1,500,000, would generally improve the entire downtown, and would increase the flow of traffic from River Street to Fifteenth Street.
Council, which had already paid out $37,000 for a land assembly between River Street and 8th Street from Central Avenue to 1st Avenue East (for a potential new city hall), decided to table the proposal in order to allow for additional in-depth consideration. At a further meeting on November 8th, the Council discussed inviting the businessmen behind the proposal to address them in Council Chambers. But although there was considerable discussion (both for and against) in the city, no further formal discussion occurred until January 25th, 1962.
That night, R.J. ‘Bob” Casey represented the realtor company John S. Fowlie Limited at the Council meeting. In addressing some of the opposition which had been mooted by citizens, he indicated that the City would pay $40,000 per year in rent in the proposed building. He further suggested a city did not need to own its own civic administration building in order to retain its civic pride. It was, according to him, readily apparent that the current facility was not adequate, and that if approved the proposed building would meet the City’s needs without it having to expend considerable capital funds. When pressed, however, Casey refused to identify the four businessmen behind the proposal, although he did indicate that they were all local, and that they were prepared to reveal their identities once the proposal received the City’s approval. Finally, Council was advised that the local Chamber of Commerce encouraged the Council to give the proposal careful consideration.
A motion to vote to ‘receive and file’ the proposal was supported by Aldermen Spencer, Hogeweide, and Turner. It was defeated. A further motion to refer the proposal to the Finance committee and the Centennial committee received support from Aldermen Reed, Allbright, Sherman, Beaton, and Wyllie. Mayor Cuelenaere made sure that everyone understood that the City Act precluded the sale of City Hall Park without an affirmative vote by the City’s taxpayers.
It was two months later when Council’s decision with respect to this proposal was made public. Alderman Marshall Allbright, Council’s representative to the Chamber of Commerce, addressed that body at their March meeting. He advised them that the Council was determined to erect a city-owned facility. The building, he said, would cost $370,000 which, borrowed over twenty years at 6% interest, would cost $37,000 a year. After twenty years, the depreciated value of such a city-owned facility would be $200,000. This suggested that the annual cost would be reduced to $15,500 net. Allbright indicated that Council’s decision was based on the desire of not only the present council but also that of previous councils. It was not, he averred, a plan developed as an alternative to the proposal presented on behalf of the four businessmen.
Having disposed of this plan to provide the City with a new administrative building, Council decided to move ahead with a second plan, the one mentioned by Alderman Allbright in his speech to the Chamber of Commerce. A further reference by Alderman Allbright occurred in a speech he delivered nearly a year later. On March 18th, 1963, he was quoted as saying that “a new city hall is quite likely to be built on the River Street triangle which has already been allocated as its site.”
As previously mentioned, $37,000 had been expended by the City to purchase property on the north end of its downtown. At a meeting in June 1963, approval was given to purchase “the final piece of property for the site of a new city hall”. Buildings on the property at 46-8th Street East would be allowed to stand until such time as construction of the new city hall was slated to begin.
It was around this time that a group of local residents formed an organisation which became known as the Civic Affairs Association. One of the organisers was Paul Voros. He informed the media that there were “a number of things going on in this city we don’t like.” He went on to say that the group did not feel “City Council is acting in our interest as ratepayers”. The group included Frank Chester, Dr. Adelman, Tony Houle, Mrs. Paul Voros, and Mrs. A. Berkech. Voros indicated that they intended to run a number of candidates in the municipal election in November.
The Civic Affairs Association had identified a number of objectives which they felt needed to be addressed, including the new west hill water reservoir, high taxes based on land assessment, the actual need for traffic lights, and the winter works project. They eventually concluded that more than anything they needed to abolish what they termed “commission government”, i.e. government led by the Mayor and the City Commissioner, whom they felt had far too much influence in the decision making process.
When Council decided to submit its request to the ratepayers to borrow the money to build the new city hall, the Civic Affairs Association was handed the issue it required to gain momentum. The group of about twenty-five grew to a group of over five hundred members by the time that the election was held.
The City needed ratepayer support to borrow the money required to build the new city hall. It was going to cost $525,000, and the City planned to borrow $350,000 from the federal municipal development and loan fund. One quarter of this money would be forgiven if the building was completed by March 31, 1966, meaning that the cost to the City would be $437,500. The first payment would not fall due until 1966, after the La Colle Falls debt had been retired.
The Civic Affairs Association suggested that the proposed expenditure was both needless and extravagant, and that the City would have to raise taxes in order to pay for it. This, they proclaimed, would result in businesses and residents leaving the city, resulting in even higher taxes for those who remained. Such an unnecessary expenditure would likely result in a failure to be able to build the new fire hall, the new police station, and the new recreation centre, all of which were considered to be greatly needed. Locating the city hall so far from the centre of the community, it was said, would result in a divided city, and it was even suggested that the location on River Street would result in the building sliding into the river.
The Council did themselves few favours in trying to sell the new city hall, failing to provide adequate arguments to refute those put forward by the Civic Affairs Association. Then, they ended up changing the wording of the plebiscite to read “$400,000 for the purpose of paying part of the cost of construction of a new city hall” (I bolded the wording). This led Mr. Chester and company to immediately charge that the cost of the building was likely to soar to a million dollars or more.
When the vote was held on November 6th, 1963, the plebiscite was defeated with 2,549 voting against it, and only 1,055 voting in favour. Although none of the other candidates supported by the Civic Affairs Association were elected, Frank Chester led the polls, garnering over one hundred more votes than his nearest competitor.
Although the Civic Affairs Association lost much of its momentum after the 1963 election, its impact on the City was felt for several years afterwards. Starting in 1966, the city administration was required to begin renting space in the Herald Building and the former Bank of Ottawa building due to a lack of space in City Hall, and in 1969 a lease was entered into which resulted in City Hall being removed to 6th Avenue and 15th Street West, the former nurses’ residence for the Holy Family Hospital. It was not until 1984 when the new City Hall was opened that it returned to the centre of the community.