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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Essex will seek RFPs for high-density residential development at former Harrow High




by Sylene Argent, Local Journalism Initiative

The Town of Essex will proceed with a Request for Proposal (RFP) process, where interested developers can pitch plans for future high-density residential development, at the former High School property footprint, after learning it was estimated to cost over $10M to convert the facility to a recreation centre.

  Council moved this motion at the regular meeting on February 20, in addition to approving utilizing $20,000 from the Development Charges Reserve-Administration to create a South Community Centre Park Master Plan to investigate recreational needs in the area.

  The Town purchased the former Harrow High School property from the GECDSB in late 2021 for $845,900, after it decided to close the school in 2015. It has sat vacant since June of 2016.

  In 2022, $60,000 was set aside to assess the facility gadget a better understanding of the costs that would be required to transform the facility into a usable centre for public occupancy.

  Since purchasing the building, and its surrounding property of several acres of greenspace, the Town has been working on an assessment of the former Harrow High School property, determining different costing models for anticipated uses, Jake Morassut, Director of Community Services, noted.

  Administration has been working with an engineering team to determine if there is a fiscally responsible option to save the school building, in part or as a whole.

  Council learned the outcome of that study was the cost to restore the facility would be an estimated $8.6M, without the consideration of changing the facility into a different use.

  To change the use from an educational institution to a recreational facility, the Town would be looking at spending an additional $1.4M, as there are updates to building codes and retrofitting to consider.    

  These cost estimations, Morassut noted, were based on visual inspections only, and the cost could be magnified if there were issues unseen to the eye.

  Two additional options were considered, Morassut noted, which included demolishing the cafeteria – which is said to be the worst area of the facility – and repair the rest. That was estimated to cost $6.7M, in addition to the $1.4M to change the use. The third option was to demolish the cafeteria and areas up to the gym, and restore the rest. This was estimated to cost $6.3M, plus the $1.4M to change the use of the facility.

  The Community Services Master Plan, adopted in 2023, identified the need for gym and multi-use facilities in the southern-end of the municipality, Morassut said. If Council wanted to work towards that, Administration recommended building the facilities needed.  

  If the Town were to build a 14,000-square-foot addition onto the Harrow & Colchester South Community Centre, it could include a gym, meeting rooms, washrooms, and potentially relocate the Harrow Library there. That would have a potential cost of $7.8M, he explained.

  “The Town is also aware there is a need for housing, specifically affordable housing,” Morassut noted. Administration recommended the Harrow High School area is put out for a Request for Proposal for development purposes.

  Funds raised through land sales could be put towards an extension at the Harrow & Colchester South Community Centre as a long-term plan, Morassut added.

  “The Town of Essex purchased this property from the School Board with the need for the land. The high school came with it. Unfortunately, the high school has been sitting vacant for nearly eight-years, with minimal attention to facility maintenance,” Morassut noted.

  “While we understand there is strong sentiment for keeping the high school, Administration believes it is in the best interest of the taxpayers to sell the land, given the burden of the costs for renovations.”  

  Essex Mayor Sherry Bondy noted the intention is to sell the Harrow High footprint, not the entirety of the property.

  In Answering Deputy Mayor Rob Shepley’s question if another area of the land with the same footprint as the school would be better for development in that area, Morassut noted Administration does not want to give up the greenspace purchased with the facility. Selling the existing footprint, they believe, is the best idea.

  Bondy said she can live with the footprint suggested to be sold. “I think it makes sense. I think we need to move forward,” she said, adding the greenspace is really valuable.

  Councillor Katie McGuire-Blais was not opposed to using potential funds garnered through the sale towards the extension of the Harrow & Colchester South Community Centre, but would like to see the funds taken from the Landfill Reserve to purchase the facility in the first place replaced first.

  CAO Doug Sweet said once RFP submissions are received, suggestions can be made on how to use the funding.

  Councillor Jason Matyi asked if Council will see the RFP before it goes out. Sweet said Administration will come back to Council on direction – with recommendations – to include Council goals in terms of percentages of affordable housing, if multi-residential or commercial is wanted. Because it is a major decision, Bondy would like to see a public open house held in Harrow before the RFP goes out.

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