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Winnipeg's historic Hudson's Bay Company building, one of the proposed sites for The United Church of Canda's new national office. Photo by Ruth Bonneville

Location scouting

With its office lease about to expire, General Council is looking for a new space to call home

By Mike Milne

After 90 years in Toronto, the United Church’s General Council offices could be moving to another city. The 20-year lease at the current location expires in 2015, and church leaders are investigating new sites for the denomination’s headquarters.

At the spring meeting of the Executive of the General Council, decision-makers considered a proposal to restrict the office relocation to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). But after almost a full day of discussions, the Executive voted to open up bids to any location. Winnipeg emerged as a strong contender.

The Executive’s working group on office accommodation will soon issue a request for proposals, receive bids and bring options for new locations to the Executive meeting in the fall. Some members of the Executive see finances and staff stability as prime considerations in any move, while others believe the General Council offices should say something about who and what the church is, and keep General Council staff and volunteers connected with the wider church and its concerns.

Last November, the Executive appointed a working group to research office options in Ottawa, Winnipeg and the GTA, rank them in order of preference and suggest a decision-making process. Instead, the working group ruled out proposed facilities in Ottawa as too expensive. Then it ruled out offices in Winnipeg because such a move could cost the General Council $4.5 million in staff severance and moving fees.

The Executive had directed the working group to make “identity and connection” the top priority for a new office location (finances were second), but the working group’s report found “no compelling missiological, theological or pastoral reason to relocate that provides beneficial offsets to the cost associated with a major geographic relocation.”

Many Executive members, meeting in Toronto in May, begged to differ, lining up at the microphones to make the case that Winnipeg would be a better fit for the United Church’s intercultural ethos and could encourage church transformation.

But to begin, many said what they didn’t want: another office like the current Church House, where the Executive held its meeting. Part of a grey block of corporate offices at 3250 Bloor St. W., it is almost impossible to identify as church space and has no immediate community connections.

“We’ve been talking about empire lately,” said Rev. Emmanuel Ofori of Montreal, “and when you approach these two towers, it looks like empire.”

Betty Turcott of Bowmanville, Ont., president of the United Church Women, said the office has a “big business” image, and it’s impossible to offer hospitality there.

“Our office reflects who we are,” said Ray Jones of South Hazelton, B.C., chair of the Aboriginal Ministries Council. “We work in a concrete block without fresh air. We are being hampered by this corporate location.”

Some Executive members were uncomfortable about making decisions on new office locations without knowing cost implications, but others looked beyond the numbers.

Said Christine Williams, a lay minister from Ottawa, “Wherever, whatever, [the new office] needs to be a space that reflects our Gospel values.”

For Rev. Carmen Lansdowne, General Council’s representative to the World Council of Churches, that space should be in Winnipeg. “Good stewardship is putting your money where your mouth is,” she said, citing the city’s offerings in regard to intercultural ministries and First Nations. “And from those two points of view, I think Winnipeg is the best choice. . . . Toronto can be much more multi-cultural than intercultural.”

Pro-Winnipeg forces seemed to gain new converts as the meeting went on. After reading the Toronto-only proposal in pre-meeting documents, Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario (MNWO) Conference president Del Sexsmith sent a letter to Executive members on behalf of the Conference’s Executive. It said, “We are convinced relocating the offices will open a space for radical transformation for the United Church.”

Executive members briefly considered sending the location decision to the 2012 General Council meeting, but a motion to that effect was defeated.

Perhaps recognizing the strength of pro-Winnipeg forces, Rev. Barbara White of Toronto suggested keeping church staff in Toronto but creating “a spiritual heart in a meeting place in Winnipeg.” An informal vote put that idea to rest.

Rev. Heather Burton, a member of the working group, wondered aloud “whether there’s an undercurrent” to the discussion “of not wanting to be in Toronto. And if that is the case, it would be helpful to know.”

No anti-Toronto sentiment was stated, but the Executive clearly wanted to look at office options beyond the GTA. As the meeting drew to a close, a motion to seek proposals from anywhere passed by a small margin.

Proposals to be considered this fall will likely come from three sources: commercial real estate firms in the GTA; downtown Toronto congregations with property redevelopment plans; and the MNWO Conference in Winnipeg. Proposals must be for leased space, located on a public transit route, with room for archives and flexibility to adjust to changing needs. The office should provide a sense of “sacred space” and address “sustainable green office space” standards.

The three Toronto churches that could provide new office space promise obvious connections with United Church congregations but are at different stages of redevelopment:

•  Westway United, in Toronto’s west-end Etobicoke neighbourhood, is just beginning to consider redevelopment of its extensive church property and parking lot. After reading in the January Observer that the General Council would be willing to work with a pastoral charge, the congregation called a real estate consultant. “We think we’d be a great spot for General Council,” says Westway United Council chair Janice Mummery, “but we’re in early stages.”

•  Bloor Street United, in midtown Toronto, has been considering property redevelopment and talking to General Council for about five years. The congregation has been planning a condominium tower with enough office space for General Council. It received detailed developers’ proposals at the end of April. The church’s redevelopment committee chair, Michael Hilliard, says his site could provide “a significant reduction on the current rent and would let General Council move into new space in a central location.” Still, he says, the church needs to make the right decision. “If the General Council decides to move here, we’ll be overjoyed. But if it decides to go somewhere else, we won’t be upset.”

•  The redevelopment project at Metropolitan United in downtown Toronto is already in the works, with permits, zoning, heritage permissions and bylaws in place for a four-storey commercial space and 30-storey residential rental building. The $120-million project, which is being built by a developer on land rented from the church, may be leased and under construction before fall. A letter of intent from the General Council to lease the commercial space could help the project get financing, says Metropolitan trustee and discussion committee chair Bruce Peckover, but “my anticipation is that the development will already be under way by the time the Executive makes
a decision.”

Winnipeg’s proposal would see General Council lease newly renovated downtown offices from the University of Winnipeg. The United Church has a long affiliation with the university, whose current president, United Church member and former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, is a strong supporter of the move. The proposal also has the support of the Manitoba government, including United Church member and provincial minister of justice Andrew Swan.

Proponents of the Winnipeg move note that the city is home to both the MNWO and All-Native Circle Conferences and that the offices will likely have close connections with local intercultural, First Nations and innovative congregational ministries. Rent and other costs would be lower than in Toronto, and other financial incentives may be put into place.

“This is a turning point, to create a new, more engaged church. And after that, the administrative details can fall into place,” says Del Sexsmith. Downtown Winnipeg “is a major cosmopolitan urban existence that is just minutes from a rural landscape in four directions and just a few hours from the rugged landscape of the North. We are a living model of the church undergoing a seminal change, and it is an organic change — not one that is being led from the top. More like the mustard seed of Scripture, springing everywhere.”

The United Church faced similar questions over cost and staffing before it vacated and sold the former Church House at 85 St. Clair Ave. E. in Toronto in 1995. After a General Council decision in 1990 to sell its aging Toronto home and build a new one in Kitchener-Waterloo or Guelph, Ont., plans changed as real estate values fell. Costs of keeping staff in place during an out-of-town move also loomed.

In the end, General Council’s Executive decided to move to the current leased offices in western Toronto, sold the St. Clair Ave. property for $6.5 million, paid staff bonuses of $1.4 million to move across town (after promising the same bonuses for an out-of-town move) and ran into cost overruns renovating office and studio space in the leased premises.

Bill Kennedy, for one, is hoping to avoid controversy over the coming move by keeping everyone informed. Lead staff on the working group and General Council’s head financial officer, Kennedy says the request for proposals will likely be advertised in church publications and websites, and detailed request documents will be sent out to interested congregations, groups or developers.

“The process has been as open as we can make it all along,” he says. “But it has been hard to ferret out who has a viable proposal.”

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