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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Essex Area Food Bank moving into Fitness Fury facility, with Council support

by Sylene Argent, Local Journalism Initiative

The Essex Area Food Bank has a new home, the former Fitness Fury Training Grounds facility; a private asset on municipal property.

  At the July 7, 2023 meeting, Lonnie Jones, Treasurer of the Essex Area Food Bank and 25-year volunteer, told Council the local food distribution service was in desperate need of a new home, after 35-years of feeding families facing economic hardships.

  It was estimated the Essex Area Food Bank – the third largest food bank in the region – would need to find a new location within the next year to year-and-a-half, which would be its seventh location since its inception. It began from a garage on Hanlan Street, had four locations at Essex District High School and Sun Parlour Junior School, and is currently working out of the gym at Essex United Church.

  He made two requests of Council to help the Food Bank better find a new location at that July meeting. The first was to change the by-law that restricts the Food Bank from being located in the business core. The second was to direct Town staff to examine Town-owned facilities where a building can be developed to host the Food Bank, which could then find a way to pay for the new build and then maintain it.

  At that meeting eight-months ago, Council passed a motion to look into finding or building a facility that could be designed to meet the Food Bank’s needs.

  On Monday, Essex Council moved to purchase the building located at 60 Fairview Avenue West, the Fitness Fury Training Grounds facility, for $450,000.

  It will be funded with $20,000 from the Essex Area Food Bank as a non-refundable deposit, $215,000 from the Landfill Reserve, and $215,000 from the Land Acquisition Reserve.

  In addition, Council approved entering into an agreement, and the associated by-law, with the Essex Area Food Bank for leased space at the former Fury Training Grounds facility for a five-year lease, commencing on July 1, 2024.

  There is an option to renew for an additional five years, beginning on August 1, 2029.

  In Director of Community Services, Jake Morassut’s, Report to Council, it noted while conducting a facility and land search, the ownership of Fitness Fury Training Grounds indicated a will to sell the facility.

  A previous Term of Council gave the gym owners permission to build on municipal property in 2017. Previously, it was working out of the former Kinsmen Fieldhouse next door

  The Town of Essex, has first right of refusal toward the purchase of the building, if it becomes available.

  Morassut adds that Administration had an independent Fair Market Value assessment completed on the facility, it was evaluated at $430,000. The asking price for the facility was $450,000, so the Town of Essex worked with the Essex Area Food Bank to determine if its reps would be willing to fund the $20,000 as a donation for infrastructure investment as the Town of Essex can not pay more than Fair Market Value.

  The Food Bank agreed. Those funds could be put towards the purchase of the facility.

  The lease rate is $27,600, plus HST per year, or $2,300 per month, with annual Consumer Price Index (CPI) increases starting after the first year.

  Morassut noted there will be small upgrades needed for the facility for the Food Bank, and it would be responsible financially for the upgrades, such as a driveway for access and potential electrical upgrades.

  Should the need arise, the Town of Essex has the ability to terminate the agreement with 90 days’ notice to the lessee if the facility is declared surplus, or Council determines the need as an alternate use.

  Jones noted the Food Bank volunteers have searched high and low through town to find a suitable location and were unable to. He noted the Food Bank has seven-months before it has to leave the Essex United Church gym.

In 2023, over $250,000 worth of groceries came into the facility and out with clients. The Food Bank itself purchased $176,000 of that. Around 80 percent of the funds the Food Bank spent were disbursed in Essex Centre.

In July, it was noted the Essex Area Food Bank was feeding around 80 families – which equates to around 240 individuals – each week.

  Jones noted the number of those depending on the service has risen. In December, the Food Bank was serving 560 individuals per week. That did not continue into February, but the number is still rising from the numbers experienced in the summer.

  “I have also been told, this was just reported, there will be an 18 percent increase in 2024 for food bank usage, and we are already seeing it,” he said.

  “During that spike in clientele, we also had a spike in giving,” Jones said. “Somehow our community senses.”

Also at the July meeting, Council moved to ask Administration as to why the Food Bank was not able to move into space downtown previously. Morassut noted the Essex Area Food Bank requested permission from the Town of Essex to locate at 68 Talbot Street North. This property is zoned Commercial District 2.2 which permits a variety of general commercial uses, such as restaurants, offices, and retail and wholesale stores for the sale or lease of goods; however, it does not list a food bank as a permitted use since there is no sales component.

  Councillor Kim Verbeek fully supported the motion. She called it a win-win-win. She thanked Morassut for outlining the plan to clear up questions residents were voicing online.

To clear up any misconceptions, Deputy Mayor Rob Shepley clarified that the previous Council for the Town of Essex allowed the gym facility on town property in 2017. The owners built the facility.

He believes the motion was the right thing to do. The Town should own the facility and have control of it moving forward.

In answering Councillor Joe Garon’s question if it would become a taxpayer burden if the lease happens to end, Director of Corporate Services, Kate Giurissevich, noted the Town was using its savings in reserves to pay for the facility. If the Food Bank was unable to make payments, the Town would lose interest earned on that. Administration would likely recommend an alternative use if that were to happen.

Councillor Katie McGuire-Blais noted she received a lot of emails that $450,000 was a lot for what people call a pole barn. She agrees. The option is to buy it and give the Food Bank a proper home, or let the lease run out and possibly force the removal of the building. She believes it is easier to purchase it.

She said she never would have supported allowing it to be built on Town-property if she was on Council at the time.

It was noted the new washrooms in Heritage Gardens Park totaled around $400,000 to install, in comparison.

Mayor Sherry Bondy noted she was on Council when the decision to allow Fitness Fury to build its facility in 2017. If it gets the Food Bank a home for the next five to 20-years, she is glad they were able to provide that.

As the public wasn’t privy to the matter, Councillor Jason Mayti was not opposed to providing only a first and second reading, and reserving the third and final reading in the future.

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