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Opinion: Dave Dale, Cassellholme future needs provincial intervention

At this point, only the Ministry of Long-Term Care can spike the project. They’ll be looking long and hard at the tender process and shot-gun wedding approach to the financing.
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Opportunities to think holistically come and go with the seasons.

North Bay’s social infrastructure planning leaves something to be desired with ‘big picture’ opportunities lost to a fragmented and inefficient approach.

Late last week, we learned the District of Nipissing Cassellholme Home for the Aged will plow ahead with a $122-million expansion and redevelopment at its existing site. Two dozen more long-term care units will be added while bringing the existing 240 beds up to a less-cramped and more practical design standard.

It’s actually been a “priority” project for decades with a generation of seniors coming and going as waves of well-intentioned individuals navel-gazed about the options and pitfalls.

My last column spoke prematurely of the plan’s demise after municipal partners such as North Bay, East Ferris and Mattawa rejected the notion of guaranteeing the provincial portion. The added burden on the books, they said, is a disabling albatross hanging around the necks of all involved.

It appeared the Cassellholme board of management was going to take the stiff opposition to heart and allow the politics to play out.

Nobody likes the fact the project doubled in costs over the last five years, not helped at all by premium pandemic pricing after valuable time was lost last year chasing alternative financing.

Some say the request for proposals and tender process repelled potential bids, leaving an uncompetitive impression despite a consultant’s analysis finding it fair and legitimate.

Comparisons to a recently celebrated private-sector project, however, appear to show the Cassellholme plan to redevelop in stages within its existing property footprint adds as much as $30 million to the total. Some politicians and their constituents suggest a new build on another property, with a new tender process attracting more bidders, would be cheaper and faster.

I had mocked the board and its ‘cart-before-the-horse’ public relations spin, painting a picture of the Keystone Cops blinking first at the OK Corral showdown. It’s somewhat surreal visiting the site and reading the early June media release about how smoothly everything was going when you know different.

I even jested that Mayor Al McDonald, who was replacing Deputy Mayor Tanya Vrebosch on the board, was going to square off with Cassellholme CEO Jamie Lowery over the issue. The sarcasm was a bit subtle, perhaps.

The joke was on me, though, as McDonald didn’t return to the virtual meeting after an in-camera session. It’s not known why, yet, with speculation, it could have been technical in nature. Mattawa and East Ferris reps abstained from the subsequent vote, electing to seek legal guidance. Usually, abstaining is counted as a vote against, and if McDonald voted no or abstained the motion would have been defeated.

The remaining board members (North Bay councillors Chris Mayne, Cassellholme board chairman, and Mark King and director Claire Campbell) decided to double-down and force the hesitant municipalities to pay through its levy powers.

It seems they had already painted themselves into a corner with Mayne explaining that they couldn’t derail the project now due to the terms of the tender approval without paying substantial penalties.

There’s already $4 million sunk into the designs, marketing and whatnot that would be lost. And many believe a well-designed facility dovetailed with the existing Castle Arms senior living apartments makes great sense.

The New Democrats, meanwhile, are making it into an election issue by stating the provincial government should not be forcing the municipalities to pay for its share – they should actually be paying for it all.

At this point, only the Ministry of Long-Term Care can spike the project. They’ll be looking long and hard at the tender process and shot-gun wedding approach to the financing.

If they do reject the proposal, it would give the communities involved another chance to take a fresh look at the bigger picture and other possibilities.

Some say the former Widdifield high school facility and property could be salvaged and redeveloped as the district long-term care facility. Others think it would fit nicely on the former Civic hospital site near the future private facility going up on the former St. Joseph's hospital site.

Others are looking at the property across Highway 17 from the North Bay Regional Health Care Centre as the most compatible option, although I have a feeling that’s too prime and pricey a location for such a facility.

Personally, I think North Bay should be thinking more strategically by covering off several of its priority needs at once.

What if they build new on the property off Marshall Avenue East in West Ferris near Fire Station 3, the first stage of a grander plan for a long-term care hub?

The community is already a destination for retirement living, why not invest in the idea North Bay is a place that cares for its residents at every stage of life? We’ve already got the post-secondary education infrastructure, a regional hospital with untapped potential, and Nipissing Serenity Hospice

The exiting facilities off Olive Street could be more easily converted to geared-to-income apartments. The city is already 200 units behind in its allocated responsibility. And the District of Nipissing Social Services Administration Board could levy North Bay to catch up at any time.

Moving the district long-term care home to West Ferris, just down Booth Road from the future twin-pad community centre also makes sense in a social way. Parents and grandchildren could easily visit their relatives before or after their games and it would add incentive to eventually punch through the extension to Highway 11.

Part of me would be fine if Cassellholme would be just pushed through now at whatever cost. I’m not sure there’s really much to be saved by altering course at this point, aside from lost opportunity for a more holistic vision.

To be clear, I think municipal long-term care should remain a public service and not privatized. There’s enough risk in the system when profits are a driving force. Taking that concept one step further, I think the most efficient and effective approach is to pay all long-term care workers on the same scales with the majority of positions full-time.

The pandemic has proven once and for all that nickel-and-diming health care with an insecure part-time labour force is a liability.

And it’s also shown us how short-sighted we have been when it comes to long-term priorities.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses related to his work can be sent to [email protected]. To contact the writer directly, email: [email protected] or check out his website