City taking ownership of former UCN campus buildings, one of which will become a sobering centre

The sobering centre for Thompson that the provincial government pledged $2.8 million towards last June took two steps closer to reality April 26 when council agreed to assume ownership of the former University College of the North (UCN) campus on Princeton Drive from the province, and also approved a project agreement with them.

The sobering centre will be housed in 494 Princeton Drive. The city doesn’t yet have plans for what to do with the other two former UCN buildings at 474 Princeton Drive and 504 Princeton Drive that are included in the deal, which caused a few councillors to vote against both resolutions. The buildings have been mostly vacant for a few years since UCN’s new campus officially opened in the spring of 2014, though the one that will house the sobering centre was until recently the site of a day care.

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The city will have to pay land transfer taxes on the assessed value of the property and buildings and complete a land subdivision process, which will also come with some costs.

“I’m concerned that all three of the properties, taking them at once will present considerable risk to the city,” said Coun. Braden McMurdo. “On top of the lost tax revenue, we’ll have to absorb the utilities expenses and I’m a little concerned with the dramatic increases in construction costs that are going on as a result of COVID that quotes we’ll be receiving might be might not be accurate anymore [and] once we sign the agreement, we are stuck with these properties without adequate money to retrofit them.”

Deputy mayor Duncan Wong said he agreed with the ideology behind the sobering centre but not taking over the other two buildings besides the one that will house it.

“Once we own it, if we don’t have any good plan moving forward, we’re stuck with that,” he said.

Both councillors, along with Coun Earl Colbourne, voted against taking ownership of the buildings and entering into the project agreement as well.

“Believe me, the sobering centre, it ain’t going to fix our problems,” said Colbourne.

Several of the councillors who supported the resolutions said that doing nothing wasn’t an option, even if their support was reluctant.

“I guarantee you if Thompson does not move forward on this project there’s other communities that will and we’ll still be n the mess we’re in today,” said Coun. Les Ellsworth, adding that a recent tour of the buildings showed they were not in as bad of shape as he thought they might be, an opinion shared by Coun. Andre Proulx.

“It’s not a secret we have an addictions issue in our city,” said Coun. Kathy Valentino. “We have an issue with the rising cost of our policing. We have advocated to the province with the issues that we have downtown. We have advocated to the province about how we need help with the addictions and this is the start to a sobering centre, to a pilot project that can possibly help.”

Coun. Jeff Fountain had misgivings about the sobering centre’s location right across the street from Wapanohk Community School and said truly addressing addictions problems would require the development of transitional housing for people who have completed programming at the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba so they can avoid falling back into old habits with old acquaintances.

“When this project started I was really excited because I expected we’d see something in terms of transitional housing,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here now. I’m still reluctantly going to support this with the hope, because we desperately need some type of housing for people, that in the future we have something more along those lines.”

Mayor Colleen Smook said even if all the questions don’t have answers right now, the city can’t afford to sit back and wait.

“We have to be leaders,” she said. “We have to start somewhere. We can’t wait for everybody else to come to the plate. I think the plans for the other two buildings with transitional housing and whatever are going to fall into place.”

Once the agreements are signed off by lawyers by the end of May, the city will be working with partner agencies in housing, addictions and mental health, among others, to establish how the sobering centre will operate, said city manager Anthony Mcinnis.

“They’re already in discussions,” he said. “We’ve already got a preliminary framework, a few different models that they’re considering. Those have to be made Thompson-specific.”

Once established, the Thompson Sobering Centre will be open around the clock, seven days a week to provide a place for non-violent publicly intoxicated people to stay while the effects of alcohol or other drugs wear off. It will provide an alternative to housing such people in the drunk tank cells at the Thompson RCMP detachment. More than 2,000 people were housed in those cells while intoxicated in 2019 under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act (IPDA).

Thompson mayors, councillors and city administration have long lobbied the province to establish a Main Street North project in Thompson, based on the model of Winnipeg’s Main Street Project. When people are arrested for public intoxication in Winnipeg, they are examined by a paramedic who either admits them or has them sent to hospital for treatment if necessary. Their medical histories are taken during initial interviews  and they are physically checked every 10 minutes until they are sober enough to be released, at which time they are given a sandwich, a drink, a phone call and a brochure outlining the addictions services that the Main Street Project provides.

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