Muskoka To-DAILY

Muskoka Centre remains in limbo after provincial study finds no fit use now for prime Gravenhurst property

By Mark Clairmont / MuskokaTODAILY Analysis

GRAVENHURST — The verdict is in on the Muskoka Centre.

And in parlance of their federal counterparts cross-town — it’s not a death sentence but a life sentence.

And that may be good.

The Muskoka Centre property may just one day be another footnote in the history of Gravenhurst, like the TB hospitals.

The Muskoka Centre property may just one day be another footnote in the history of Gravenhurst, like the TB hospitals.

The province is not prepared to go any further right now on the prime 70-acre LakeMuskoka property.

They won’t spend the estimated $6 million to demolish the buildings and cleanup the site now — or for a new buyer and developer.

So it will continue to sit, as it has for the better part of a quarter century, since it was a home for mental health patients.

As for putting it up for sale again — that would be a “final step” some way down the road now.

Besides, it would have several eco and economic provisos and restrictions on a sale that would limit bidders from investing tens of millions. So, caveat emptor.

No appraisal was also mentioned, which with 2,000 feet of lakeshore at some $2,000 per foot (plus back lot acreage) would make it a rich buy.

In the Q&A after officials put to rest any more talk of restoration. Do the words asbestos and mould ring familiar?

They were categorical about that.

They’ve done their due diligence — and right now it’s a non-starter.

At least not with the Liberals — despite previous indications to the contrary.

The only positive to come out was that there is now at least up-to-date inventory of the property.

In total, that was the deflating message some 100 people received Saturday morning at the Gravenhurst Centennial Centre.

The much-anticipated meeting and consultant’s report for the Infrastructure Ontario revealed a landmark in perpetual limbo.

In an impressive presentation that was both a thorough and detailed examination that combined a community wish list with government reality, it highlighted the province’s commitment to do something utterly positive.

Economic development and jobs were the prime focus of their year-long public and private investigation.

But after shopping the Muskoka Centre around — one more time — to all Ontario government ministries and to federal ministries, there were no takers.

And with lake residents opposed to housing, there’s not much hope left.

About all they offered was non-profits and NGOs — non-government organizations — that would be offered right of refusal.

But with many such groups strapped for cash, it’s unlikely they would bite at the steep costs involved.

There was no mention of giving the land to the Town of Gravenhurst — fortunately.

Which brings us back to the silver lining in Saturday’s disappointing announcement by Infrastructure Ontario officials on hand.

With the province predicting deeper debt and deficits in today’s May 1 budget, don’t count on them digging deep to help Muskoka.

But they could. And relatively easily.

All it would take is a provincial day park, which I have preached for years since my time on council.

It’s a win-win-win.

It stays natural, the province pays the bills and condo concerns are addressed.

There would be some government jobs and economic spin-offs from tourists.

Look at what AlgonquinPark has done for Huntsville and Lake of Bays.

But their also remains a faint hope that an educational facility could still come to the rescue.

A small steering group of about a half-dozen interested people that formed out of the province’s public information centres the past year has been in touch with YorkUniversity. And at an intermediary level, the school’s unofficial response has been — well — they’re willing to examine possibilities.

The working group sees some kind of arts and culture institution — perhaps film studio — which fits with the existing zoning use of the property.

There could be synergy there with the local arts community.

Perhaps a Banff school of fine arts in Muskoka.

The consensus of the report and its recommendation going to the cabinet and province is that the beach be retained for future use; any cottage/condos would be subject to a 90-foot green belt buffer around the lake restricting it to essentially where the existing tear-down buildings are now; and that the large forested area (about half the property) on the north east as you drive into the centre be retained natural.

Any sale would have to see development commence within two years of a deal — or the province could buy it back.

Commercial use that could mean overuse would be long-shot.

So, after years of study and debate, the Muskoka Centre remains an enigma — a puzzling, inexplicable occurrence or situation that has given rise to much speculation.

Perhaps there is someone out there willing to take a risk.

But many locals — including the steering committee — still believe that with the right proposal the money would flow.

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