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YWCA plans $35-million facility in Cathedral area, with city likely to pitch in free land

The Regina Leader-Post with Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen 11 January 2019

Regina’s YWCA plans to build a $35-million facility at the site of the former Victoria School and Lucy Eley Park — and the city might give them the land for free to support a “unique” project.

Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen, CEO of the YWCA, said the proposed Centre for Women and Families would be a community hub that will focus on prevention, to stop women and children from becoming homeless in the first place.

“The entire concept behind it is that if we work with vulnerable women and children before crisis, then we will reduce the number of people needing our shelter,” Coomber-Bendtsen said.

“We turned away almost 3,000 women and children last year from our shelter, both our domestic violence shelter and our homeless shelter, due to lack of space,” she added. “So we knew we needed to do something differently.”

The centre would host traditional healing and medicine spaces for Indigenous women — as well as the city’s first indoor sweat lodge. The plan calls for a commercial kitchen to help run employment programs and an additional 14 affordable housing spaces. Shelters currently housed downtown would move to the new site.

It even includes a harm reduction facility. Coomber-Bendtsen called it a “chill-out space” for women who are intoxicated. It could avoid the need to call police.

According to Coomber-Bendtsen, the centre will bring a wide range of community organizations under one roof. They’re hoping to welcome groups like Regina Mobile Crisis Services and Regina Sexual Assault Centre.

The YWCA is planning to preserve an open space at the site for public enjoyment.

“The park space has yet to be designed, as we will be going to community consultations to get input into the outdoor gathering, recreation and culture space,” Coomber-Bendtsen explained. “The space will be informed by and open to the public.”

The Cathedral Area Community Association held a vote on Thursday, opting to support the proposal. Board president Brad Olson acknowledged there will likely be resident concerns around parking, height and land values — but he said those issues must be balanced with the needs of vulnerable citizens.

“The Y serves a really important purpose and it needs to be somewhere,” he said. “Just relegating everything to downtown or Heritage isn’t necessarily the way to go.”

Olson also noted that Lucy Eley Park is now merely a “de facto park,” little better than a place to kick a ball around. He hopes the YWCA proposal will result in a more engaging space. But he supports the need for more community consultation.

Coomber-Bendtsen said a proposed $2.1-million land gift from the City of Regina will make a big difference. The idea passed unanimously at a meeting of council’s Finance and Administration Committee on Tuesday. It will now go to a full meeting of city council on Jan. 28 for final approval.

“We’re holding back the full champagne bottle. But it certainly has a huge impact on our ability to now leverage some dollars from the provincial government and the federal government as well,” Coomber-Bendtsen said.

City administration was recommending a land sale at market value, for just under $2.1 million. In a report, it said the YWCA could then use the proceeds from selling its current site on McIntyre Street, which was itself gifted by the city years ago.

The city has a caveat on the land title for the McIntyre Street site, allowing them to buy the land back at $1 if the YWCA ever ceases operations. Under the administration plan, that caveat would be transferred to the Retallack Street land.

But the committee opted to follow a more generous route. If the idea passes at council, the city will give away the Retallack Street properties for free and allow the YWCA to sell the McIntyre Street property to help fund the centre. The $1 caveat would apply to the newly gifted land.

Coun. Bob Hawkins, who moved the motion in committee, said that will be a helpful boost to get the project built. He celebrated the hub model.

“They are now going to be able to give much more proactive advice, as opposed to waiting until a woman or child has a real difficulty,” Hawkins said. “They’ll be able to spot problems before they become crises.

“This is so important in our community that we can afford to be a bit more generous.”

Administration had warned that the gift may create a precedent, prompting more organizations to come forward for free land. But Hawkins said the YWCA is different.

“It is a unique case,” he said. “There are many organizations providing good services, but the Y has established a unique set of services — the hub model, the preventative model.”