Some Vittoria residents fear Norfolk County may move to sell the historic village’s 153-year-old town hall.J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

VITTORIA It has sat in the heart of Vittoria since 1870, but residents of the historic Norfolk County village are worried their venerable town hall may soon be no more.

The hall — a provincially designated heritage building that was once a busy community gathering place — has been closed since at least 2019, when the county put out requests for private enterprises to manage Norfolk’s community halls in hopes of making them profitable.

An attempt last year to turn Vittoria’s town hall into a privately managed event space failed after a local entrepreneur discovered the building needs costly renovations to meet accessibility and building code requirements. 

The county and the entrepreneur mutually terminated their lease agreement in March.

Now some locals fear Norfolk County may sell the property — a fear stoked by what residents say is a lack of communication and transparency from council and county staff.

“Are they going to sell it? Are they going to tear it down? What’s going to happen with it?” asked Greg Bezzo, who grew up in Vittoria and often visits family there.

Bezzo was one of 15 people who met on the steps of the Old Brock Street building Thursday to ask council to “save the town hall.”

The Vittoria town hall, a provincially designated heritage building, needs extensive renovations and is currently closed.

“It was a meeting place,” said Bezzo, describing a building that hosted public meetings, quilt and craft shows, yoga classes and family functions.

“The concern here is how it’s been managed,” he said. “Work needs to be done to it, obviously. Because it’s been let go.”

Residents want an accounting of what money has been allocated to the hall’s upkeep — including donations from Vittoria’s community foundation — and an explanation of how the funds have been spent.

Councillors should also involve residents in a conversation about the building’s future and not go into a meeting with their minds made up, Bezzo said.

“There have been too many people who put in volunteer hours here, and their own money,” he said. “Don’t just rubber-stamp it. Do the right thing.”

Coun. Chris Van Paassen, who represents Vittoria, told The Spectator the town hall is “not currently” for sale, adding councillors will not determine the building’s future without consulting the community.

“There’s never been any discussion at official council about that building,” Van Paassen said.

He noted staff had promised to bring a report about the town hall to council this month. 

“The next step would probably be that public consultation,” Van Paassen said.

The previous council approved $300,000 for exterior repairs to the building.

“Then when staff started looking at it, we found out there were more problems than expected,” Van Paassen said, describing issues with the foundation and brickwork.

“The $300,000 wasn’t going to cut it.”

An engineering report commissioned by the county and reviewed by The Spectator estimated the total repair bill at $825,000.

While the town hall is not mentioned on the public agenda for the Sept. 12 council meeting, a technical study on county-owned lands and a property sale in Ward 4, which includes Vittoria, are among the closed-session items.

Residents are concerned both topics relate to the town hall.

Van Paassen didn’t elaborate on the closed-session items, but said it is “normal practice” for staff to first discuss county property behind closed doors, as publicly disclosing confidential information could influence the market.

“I’m not in any way insinuating that we’re going to sell the town hall,” the councillor added.

“There’s nothing untoward, in my mind, going on. It just takes longer than ever to do anything anymore. And it’s hard to make a good decision without information.”

Helen Colombus, 97, said the town hall is a village “landmark” that deserves to be repaired and reopened.

Nancy Racz, who lives just outside Vittoria, said the dearth of repairs at the town hall is tantamount to “wilful neglect of our heritage.”

“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered before they come to a conclusion,” she said. “There’s options out there, and they need to be discussed.”

Racz wants the county to stick to its official plan, which prioritizes heritage and “community institutions,” and consult with Norfolk’s heritage advisory committee about the building.

Van Paassen deferred to Vittoria’s approximately 600 residents when asked if the village needs a town hall and a county-run community centre a few blocks apart.

“That would be one of the questions that would be a good one for public input,” he said.

Helen Colombus, 97, attended women’s institute meetings and seniors’ club suppers at the town hall for decades.

She came to Thursday’s rally to underscore that the building is an important part of the village.

“It is. For everybody,” Colombus said.

“I hope they make the right decision and they keep it. Because it’s a landmark. It needs fixing.”

By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Sep 11, 2023 at 08:45

This item reprinted with permission from   The Spectator   Hamilton, Ontario
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