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Old school once eyed as homeless shelter put out for private sector renovation

A former school once earmarked for emergency housing has been ruled “surplus to Government requirement”.

Now the Ministry of Public Works has asked for expressions of interest to renovate the former Bishop Spencer School in Pembroke.

A spokesman said that it was part of a move to spark private sector interest in the refurbishment of empty Government buildings to give them a new lease of life.

The ministry’s invitation, on the procurement notices page of the Government’s website, said: “The property was formerly a public school and Ministry of Education offices and is now identified as surplus to Government requirement.

“Therefore Department of Public Lands and Buildings is exploring interest for repurposing of its use.”

The deadline for submissions is 3pm on November 9.

Michael Weeks, then Minister of Social Development and Sports, said in July 2018 that the Progressive Labour Party government was “following up on a promise made by the former PLP government prior to the 2012 General Election to redevelop the Bishop Spencer facility”.

He added: “Government has given its approval to the redevelopment of the former Bishop Spencer facility for use as a new emergency housing centre, and intends to work in conjunction with the Salvation Army to make this a reality.”

Mr Weeks said that a draft memorandum of understanding outlined that the charity would be “responsible for the capital redevelopment of the Bishop Spencer facility at an estimated cost of approximately $3.5 million”.

He explained that the proposed agreement would mean that The Salvation Army took on “ongoing capital and operational costs of running the redeveloped facility at an estimated cost of $1,200,000 per annum”.

Mr Weeks added: “Government would provide a total operating grant of $1.2 million per year to the Salvation Army – inclusive of capital maintenance – to cover operational costs, including staffing and programming, subject to annual review.”

But Major Sandra Stokes, the Salvation Army’s divisional leader for Bermuda, said that the Bishop Spencer site was found to be too big for the charity’s “current needs”.

She added: “It had been abandoned for ten-plus years and would have required the Salvation Army to raise $4 million in order to restore, repair and renovate the facility and bring it up to code for occupancy.

“Also, there would have been the additional operational costs.”

A Ministry of Public Works spokesman said later: “As it stands now, the Salvation Army has made it clear that they no longer want Bishop Spencer, and instead of continuing the practice of allowing Government buildings to sit vacant, the Ministry of Public Works has looked to put them to use by issuing requests for expressions of interest.

“In doing so, the Government can potentially generate interest from individuals and organisations in the private sector to carry out work on these properties, rather than allowing them to remain vacant.

“Ultimately, as it pertains to the needs of Bermuda’s vulnerable and indigent community, the Government’s primary objective is to ensure that the men and women in need of shelter and support have a safe place for refuge to live in peace and dignity.”

The spokesman added that “much work” was done with the Salvation Army.

He said that the Government – through the Bermuda Housing Corporation – struck a public-private partnership with philanthropists Jim Butterfield and Kirk Kitson “to rehabilitate and refurbish the shelter buildings located on North Street and managed by the Salvation Army”.

The renovations included roof replacements, repairs to walls and foundations as well as plumbing and electrical work.

The spokesman said: “Two residential buildings housing the men and women of the shelter have been remodelled and refurbished and the central building housing the administration staff, common areas, and the kitchen were repaired, culminating with the recently renovated men’s shelter on North Street.

“The public should also be aware that in later 2019, the Minister of Public Works, Minister of Health, and Minister of Community Affairs and Sports, along with their respective permanent secretaries, met with Major Stokes and two visiting colonels from Salvation Army Canada to discuss the state of the facility at the North Street.

“During this meeting, it was agreed that the project was of utmost importance, and as such, quarterly meetings would be established between the Salvation Army Bermuda and the responsible Permanent Secretaries with the goal of ensuring all operational and building-related matters received the priority they deserved.”

He said that Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the public works minister, liaised with Mr Butterfield, “who was keen to support, with funds and manpower and it was agreed that the Government would match the funding to upgrade the facility”.

The spokesman said that Mr Kitson “joined the effort and it was all hands on deck with a methodical approach undertaken to repair the salvageable buildings one at a time – while the buildings that were beyond repair were demolished”.

He added: “To support efforts to upgrade facilities, the Government committed to $1 million in capital funding in this year’s budget.

“In addition to this sizeable capital investment, the Government increased its annual grant to the Salvation Army by $150,000 over last year to support additional services.“

David Burt, the Premier, said in May last year that talks were under way to determine if the Bishop Spencer site was suitable for a “centrally located rooming house” for the Bermuda Housing Corporation.

The PLP, in its platform released before the October 1 General Election, promised that a “continuum of care” would be provided for the homeless.

It said that would include “expansion of emergency shelters to provide an immediate and safe alternative to sleeping on the streets, especially for homeless families with children”.

*To read the ministry’s response in full, click on the PDF under “Related Media”.

The former Bishop Spencer School building in Pembroke (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published October 21, 2020 at 1:00 pm (Updated October 20, 2020 at 6:27 pm)

Old school once eyed as homeless shelter put out for private sector renovation

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