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Government set to close Dehcho Hall

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Dec 15/06) - If the government of the Northwest Territories has their way, Dehcho Hall's days are numbered.

On Nov. 16, tenants of the building were informed by Dan Daniels, the deputy minister of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) and by Mike Aumond, the deputy minister of Public Works and Services, that the decision had been made to close the building.
NNSL Photo/graphic

Calling themselves Friends of Dehcho Hall, people like Nolan Swartzentruber are fighting to keep the building from being closed by the territorial government. - Roxanna Thompson/NNSL photo

Dehcho Hall, a 49-year-old structure located in Fort Simpson, houses government departments and agencies including Education, Culture and Employment; the Justice department, the Dehcho Divisional Education Council and Aurora College.

A few non-profit organizations such as the Open Doors Society, the John Tsetso Memorial Library and the Fort Simpson Historical Society also use the building.

The final decision to close the hall was made by the financial management board and the cabinet, said Charles Dent, minister of Education, Culture and Employment.

"It really came down to money," said Dent.

The government can't afford to, or justify, putting money into renovations, he said.

"It's public money so we have the responsibility to be responsible with it," said Dent.

Dent said he's aware that closing the building will leave the non-governmental organizations without accommodations.

Dent said options for renovations were looked at for a number of years but weren't feasible, and there's also a question of upholding a standard. The government doesn't provide space for similar organizations in other communities so it can't show favour in Fort Simpson, he said.

To renovate only the government space in the hall for use over the next 10 years would cost approximately $12 million, said Mike Aumond. It would then cost significantly more to keep the building habitable after that decade, he said.

In contrast, the Department of Public Works and Services has budgeted $8.6 million to construct a new building for government staff that will last 30 to 40 years, said Aumond. That figure will construct both the building and pay for furniture, equipment and the creation of office spaces, he said.

In 2004, the estimate to renovate the entire hall was $19 million, but the costs of supplies and labour has made it much higher, he said.

The hall has to be closed because of both structural and fire code issues, said Aumond.

Originally designed as a student residence, the floors were not created to carry a commercial load, said Aumond. The building is not up to commercial codes and needs work on the roof, floors, walls, electrical, plumbing and heating systems.

The department also has an order from the fire marshal to close the building or leave by May 2008.

The current plan is to have the new building ready by 2008, said Aumond. The department is in discussion with LKS Realty on where to place the new building but it will be in the downtown area, he said.

The department plans to spend approximately $500,000 on repairs to the sprinklers, doors and foundations that will be done by March to keep the building open until 2008.

Many residents of Dehcho Hall are dismayed by the decision.

"We kind of see this as a community asset," said Nolan Swartzentruber, the superintendent of the Dehcho Divisional Education Council.

Along with other community members, Swartzentruber is part of a group calling themselves Friends of Dehcho Hall who are launching a campaign to try and save the building.

"The fight isn't over yet," said Swartzentruber.

If the group can get a groundswell of support from the community, they hope the government will change their mind, he said.

If Dehcho Hall is closed it will be a great loss, said Swartzentruber. The building houses programs that support people from their birth and through the rest of their lives.

"It's kind of like one stop shopping," he said.

The building also provides space for many meetings and events. Since 2002 there have been 511 uses of the building not counting events that didn't pay, such as funerals. The real number is closer to 600 or 700, he said.

Every third day someone is using the building's space, said Swartzentruber.

If the building is closed, the Open Door Society might close with it, said Val Gendron the society's coordinator.

"There is nowhere to go and nowhere that will give us free space," she said.

Currently the society only pays janitorial fees.

If the 12-year-old society had to close it would be a big loss, Gendron said. The society offers a number of programs including pre-school, Busy Bees, a playgroup and the toy lending library as well as a number of special events.

Every family in the village has had contact with the program.

"The board is frustrated and disappointed in the government because they're making decisions when they don't know what's happening in Fort Simpson," said Gendron.

"I don't know how you put a price on a child's future," she said.

If Dehcho Hall is closed, the Fort Simpson Historical Society will also be homeless, at least for a while.

The society does plan to move into the Heritage Centre when renovations on the rectory are finished, but that won't be until sometime in 2008, said Martina Norwegian, the society's president.

It would be better to renovate and update the building because the community will never have anything like it again, she said.

"I think we just took it for granted until now," said Norwegian.

The John Tsetso Memorial Library will also be looking for a new location.

Finding a location as suitable as the current one might be impossible, said Stephen Rowan, a member of the library committee.

While looking at options a few years ago, the library was told they had more space than would be allotted for a community of 1,200. The library needs more space than it would be given under the government formula, said Rowan.

If the library is moved, there is also a concern about its new location.

The library has a superb location in town because it's right beside the schools, said Rowan. This means that children can walk over safely after school.

"This is something we don't want to leave or give up," said Rowan.

Rowan said he personally doesn't think the hall will be closed because public outcry will reverse the decision.