Colleen Hobson, executive director of Saanich Neighbourhood Place, says her organization is ecstatic council approved a grant and a development permit application for a new daycare facility in Gorge-Tillicum area that will offer 49 spots. The organization plans to build the facility on a piece land behind G.R. Pearkes Community Recreation Centre currently used as a parking lot. Wolf Depner / News Staff

Saanich forks out $253,000 for non-profit daycare

Saanich Neighbourhood Place plans to break ground on a new daycare facility in mid-to-late fall.

A non-profit Saanich daycare provider is exploring its funding options after council approved some but not all of its financial requests for a new daycare facility.

Council Monday approved a grant of $253,006 and a development permit for the project. But council balked at granting an interest-free loan of $200,000, citing financial concerns.

Colleen Hobson, executive director of Saanich Neighbourhood Place, said the loan refusal will make it more challenging to get the project off the ground but not doom it. Overall, she expressed strong support for council’s decision.”We are ecstatic that it [the grant] was approved,” she said.

Saanich Neighbourhood Place plans to break ground on a new daycare facility in mid-to-late fall that would offer 25 full-time preschool and 24 infant toddler spaces in a single-storey modular building next to the Pearkes Recreation Centre, where it has been operating a daycare facility since 1993.

The value of the total project would be around $1.9 million, of which Saanich Neighbourhood Place has already raised $1.2 million, said Hobson.

The new daycare would operate on land that Saanich owns under a lease agreement and Saanich would eventually assume ownership of the building.

Council approved the grant, building permit, lease and additional reserves following a lengthy debate and some emotional presentations from parents, by a vote of 6-1 with Coun. Leif Wergeland opposed. Coun. Fred Haynes was absent from the discussion and vote.

While councillors generally supported the initiative, they stopped short of granting the $200,000.

“As I read the [staff] report, there are tons of red flags in this report,” said Coun. Susan Brice. “We can be supportive in a practical way, and help to ensure the project goes ahead,” she said. “But we also need to be prudent because this is not our own money that we are putting out there. We are acting on behalf of the taxpayers.”

Coun. Judy Brownoff agreed. “The whole idea of trying to use our interest-free loan program in this way really made me uncomfortable,” she said.

Wergeland wondered whether financial support for the daycare now would leave Saanich on the financial hook in the future, citing the district’s ongoing support for the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific. While he acknowledged the demand for additional daycare, he also questioned whether Saanich should get involved in the daycare business.

Mayor Richard Atwell said this request would not be the last one of its kind in raising questions about the role of municipal government. “When these things come forward in the future, we need to really figure out, what are the absolute limits of what government can do?” he said.

Hobson tried to ease fears about the organization’s financial state during her presentation.

“We are a very financially stable organization,” she said. “We have had conversations with two different financial institutions, both of whom have indicated that, based on our operational budget table, we would be able to receive mortgages of up to $1 million. At this point, we could also take that $200,000 [loan] off the table, if we need to.

Coun. Colin Plant meanwhile questioned whether Saanich’s refusal to grant the loan lessens its financial exposure, after hearing from staff that the district would ultimately be responsible if the daycare were to default on a future mortgage, something Plant thinks is unlikely. “This isn’t a fly-by-night operation that says, ‘Hey, bail us out, help us,’” he said. “At the end of day, I think the risk is low.”

He also questioned the hand-wringing over whether Saanich should support daycare. “I would always be willing to support children and families,” he said. “When all is said and done, Saanich is helping to supply additional daycare. And if that is what gets us a bad reputation, so be it.”

Plant also suggested that Saanich may wish to use its strategic reserve of $1.2 million towards the project. “We own this building. It is not like that we are subsidizing another daycare. That is a huge distinction [and] we have the funds right now.”

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