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Consulting games 

Highly paid consultants are getting involved in Bloomfield Centre plans, and tenants worry their hard work will be ignored.

After four years of pushing city council for action on the Bloomfield Centre, the north end rec centre with a vibrant 20-year history, Imagine Bloomfield has a glimmer of hope.

Since 2004, the non-profit collective of Bloomfield tenants and neighbours has gathered community input and held a series of public consultations facilitated by Dalhousie planning students. More than 500 community members participated in the four-year process.

Last month, HRM hired the prominent local architectural/urban-design firm Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple to lead a professional consultation process, the outcome of which will be a Bloomfield Centre master plan. "It sounds like what Imagine Bloomfield has already been doing for years," company principal Brian Mackay-Lyons says, "and to a certain extent, that's true."

While there will likely be duplication between Imagine Bloomfield's work and that of the consultants, Mackay-Lyons hopes that the professional expertise of his team (which includes US-based real estate firm Colliers and ERA heritage architects in Toronto) will finally put the plan in motion at City Hall.

"From our perspective, it had better be building on what has been done," says Susanna Fuller, spokesperson for Imagine Bloomfield. "The city has paid $66,000 to $70,000 to hire a local consultant, but if they squander what the community has done, that would add to the pile of disrespect and it's a waste of our work and their money."

Fuller hopes the work of the professional consultants, starting with two workshops this Wednesday and Saturday, will flesh out the details of the community's vision. Although this consultation is completely separate and independent from Imagine Bloomfield, the consultants have reviewed the plan put forth by Imagine Bloomfield.

The vision includes a green retrofit of the Bloomfield buildings, mixed-use tenancies including housing, arts and community services, recreation and financial self-sustenance via social enterprise and a co-operative community-based management structure.

"It should not be HRM-run," Fuller emphasises. "HRM failed miserably as a landlord. If they were a private company they would have been fined for negligence, leaving tenants with bad air quality and the building in severe decline."

She talks enthusastically of the diversity of groups that once inhabited Bloomfield but adds: "They kicked everybody out. Tenancy has fallen from 54 to five since 2004."

Despite her misgivings, Fuller is hopeful that this official consultation process will determine specifics such as methodology and costs for ecologically renovating and refurbishing heritage buildings.

Both Mackay-Lyons and Ross Cantwell of Colliers say that Imagine Bloomfield's years of hard work will be seriously considered.

"It's a pretty substantial piece of work," Cantwell says.

But there will be some overlap as the consultants take a step back, confirm what has been done to date and bring newcomers to the process up to date, Cantwell adds. From there, he says, the community will face some difficult decisions.

Cantwell compares Imagine Bloomfield's vision to walking into a store and seeing and wanting all the beautiful things inside.

"What wasn't done was setting priorities."

Cantwell estimates the cost of restoring the Bloomfield buildings at $3 million. Although HRM is not insisting Bloomfield be completely self-funded, the higher the pricetag, the less likely implementation will be.

This phase of consultation will attempt to strike a balance between the community's wants and the city's financial realities.

"We know what developers pay for these things," Cantwell says.

Fuller is concerned that HRM staff and council are too concerned with cost recovery to make Imagine Bloomfield's vision fly.

"The community wants a non-profit recreation centre with culture, art and social enterprise," she says. "But HRM thinks non-profit means financial failure."

Fuller remains cautiously optimistic: "If they do it right it could go a long way to make amends," she says.

"It's time for something to happen that is reflective of the community intellect and social capital."



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