In this episode, Smokey and Eddy discuss OPSEU/SEFPO’s recent purchase of the historic Frost Centre in Haliburton, Ontario and how the union is working hard to support its members and build capacity to prepare for better times ahead.

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00:06 Thomas: Hi everyone, and welcome to our 4th episode of OPSEU/SEFPO talk. I’m Smokey Thomas and I’m President of OPSEU/SEFPO and I’m happy to say that we’re kicking off 2021 with a good news story. And I think that we could all agree that we need some good news. And I am joined today by Eddy Almeida, First Vice-President/Treasurer of OPSEU/SEFPO and we’re going to discuss the recent purchase of Haliburton’s historic Frost Centre. It’s a gem of a property and soon to be the newest OPSEU/SEFPO member resource and training centre.
You know it’s been a brutal year and staying distanced from our extended families, friends and the members of our OPSEU/SEFPO family has made it even harder. But I think we have reason to be hopeful and excited. And you know, by this time next year, we should be back in the swing of things and able to meet face-to-face. And I’m looking forward to that. You know it’s what we’re hoping for and it’s what we’re planning for too. So, with that said, I’d like to welcome Eddy. And Eddy thank you for joining me today.

1:15 Almeida: No problem Smokey. It’s good to be here and good to be here in the studio and doing something other than looking at the computer and at numbers. So thank you.

1:26: Thomas: You recently said that the purchase of the Frost Centre was all about making the best of bad times to prepare for better times ahead. You talked about building our union’s capacity and so you know can you explain how we’re doing that and why that’s so important?

1:45 Almeida: So I mean like you know many of us and many of our members and many of the folks who are listening, I’m a silver lining type of person and I think OPSEU/SEFPO is an organization that’s very advanced and proactive group of thinkers and one of the things we were thinking about is this was an opportunity for us. So when we found out through those many emails and little flashes that one of your executive assistants send us every morning, we found out that the Frost Centre was actually up for sale and they were taking all kind of bids on it. So, for us, it was an opportunity. You and I had discussions about this, and we kind of joked at first (remember we were saying) “laugh out loud this would be a great training centre, much like Unifor has.” The opportunity for the future is obviously this site as it is, is going to take some work, we understand that. But that’s okay, it’s about building for the future. So, whether you’re here or not here and whether I’m here or not here is irrelevant, because, that place I think for Boards of the future and activists of OPSEU/SEFPO for the future is going to be something that they’re going to be able to utilize, and they’re going to be able to have as an asset for again, not just this generation, but generation to come.

3:21 Thomas: The story of Christmas Eve, please tell when you phoned me.

3:26 Almeida: (Laughs) Oh yes, so that was interesting, because what had happened was everything was blind bids. We weren’t even allowed to go on the property, basically it was sold as is. They said that there was people on site looking at it. So, our bid was blind. I think there was two sort of swipes at it. You put in your first bid, and then a whole bunch of people got cleared out and then we were one of thirty people who bid for the property, and they didn’t tell us when we had done it, that basically you’d find out in a week. So they called me on Christmas Eve and said “hey Christmas came early, you’re the winning bid for the Frost Centre.” I was so excited, I said “I got to call Smokey,” so I gave you a call.

4:26 Thomas: I didn’t believe you at first, I thought you were pulling my leg.

4:28 Almeida: (Laughs) Yeah! You said “come on, you’re funny.” Because when we went in with the bid we though “oh, I don’t know.” But yeah…

4:38 Thomas: And just speaking about Unifor centre, you and I have toured it. I have been there before. And Jerry Dias actually called me and said, “Congratulations, you’re getting your own place, good for you folks.” He said, “Any help you need, you‘re welcome to work with our folks and how we run ours and that kind of stuff”. So that’s very very helpful, and I told him that we’re grateful for his generosity.

5:04 Thomas: So I have another question for you. So, OPSEU/SEFPO operates on an annual budget of over $100 million dollars. And as the elected leaders working with the Executive Board, we do have to make smart decision about how we support our members with those funds in bargaining, enforcing collective agreements and organizing. But you’ve called the Frost Centre an asset. So, can you explain to the membership how this purchase helps us supports our members?

5:32 Almeida: So I mean, I think you were previously Vice-President/Treasurer so you have a good knowledge of how these things work. But for the most part, what we’ve been doing lately, and the Frost Centre is only one example of how this Executive Board and some of the previous ones have been proactive. We’ve been purchasing property, because in the long run it’s going to be cheaper obviously, or more cost effective in regards to owning our own property rather than leasing, and leasing space and leasing meeting rooms, etc. So I think that’s a general knowledge of why that’s such a great asset, you sort of deviate from spending money at other locations.

But the asset in itself that this property and other properties like it is the fact that it becomes part of the strike fund. It becomes an asset of the strike fund. And if need be, if we’re ever on strike or one of our groups is on strike, if we need to borrow against any of this property we can do that. Overall financially, obviously it makes our organization very strong. Real estate is always a good buy. I think any of the listeners can acknowledge that when you have property, you have assets. So this continues, right now with all of our assets and everything, I think we’re just over 70 million dollars. So we’re doing quite well, thank you very much.

And one of the things we were talking about opportunity before, Smokey, we haven’t had the face-to-face, we haven’t had the accommodations, we haven’t had the conferences and all that. Because there was such a great amount of savings, the board, another asset is 155 Lesmill, that was going to be paid back to the strike fund over the next 15-16 years, and because of the amount money that we had in our general fund, we were able to pay that off 16 years ahead of time. So all these things are great. They’re great for the organization, and they’re great for the union. And as you know, when we have a sound financial footing, the union is stronger.

7:59 Thomas: You threw out the number of seventy million dollars, that’s the value of the strike fund? Yes, just so folks understand.
8:03 Almeida: Yes, which includes all the assets. That would include here (100 Lesmill), like all of the properties that we own. That’s part of it. And just so people know, the value of properties – I don’t want to get too technical and this is more in regards to the smarter people in the world that we have on staff -in regards to the value of property obviously overtime, actually believe it or not, depreciates on value. The only time it is a greater asset is when it comes time to borrow, you have to go and get it re-evaluated.

8:30: Thomas: So Eddy, let’s talk about the price. I’ve looked at property prices in that area, and to be honest, I was stunned that our bid was successful. We’re talking about 41 acres of land, 2800 feet of shoreline and 21 buildings with dorm rooms and cottages. And it’s my understanding that of the 30 plus bids, ours wasn’t even the highest. Why do you think we lucked out?

8:54 Almeida: So you know what Smokey, you’re right, we did luck out. We’re very fortunate. But I think that was in line with the fact that as a trade union and the fact that our intention was made very clear in regards that we didn’t want to change the property. That we were going to use it for the purpose that it was actually created, which was education. I mean our real estate agent had suggested maybe going in a little bit higher than what we wanted to do, and you weren’t comfortable and I wasn’t comfortable going higher, because we understand that it’s been sort of dormant for 10 years, and there is a substantial amount of work that has to be done. And the members and the union have to invest to bring it up to where they can use it.

But I think the fact that we got so much property and so much shoreline, and so many buildings to build on and to build for the future, I can’t stop smiling, because you know the fact our bid won. And again, because we had the fewest amount of conditions, and we also talked about that we weren’t going to violate the community trust in regards to what the property was going to be used for. So, I’m very happy.
10:14 Thomas: Just on the bidding process. I know that there were conditions in the bids that talked about the community assets and that kind of things. Could you explain what our position was?

10:25 Almeida: Our position was as a union is that we’re obviously based in community, so any of our building that we own, and that’s any building that we own; even the ones that we rent, if there’s someone whose likeminded that wants to utilize our space, as long as it doesn’t infringe on our members’ activities and what they’re doing at the time, we’re more than happy to allow them to on request utilize our space.

But also, we didn’t want to limit access to the grounds. There was, I believe, some people who went in and there was conditions in regards to how people could access whatever they purchased. I mean the launch area or the dock that goes into the actual lake that had already been previously severed for the township. So they own that little parcel there, so they could allow other people to launch their boats, and they have to maintain it. And they’re also going to maintain all the trails that is through it. So that’s on them to do. So in the end, we didn’t mind in the conditions. Obviously Smokey, we want people to come and hear our good news. I’m happy to say that we’ll probably be putting some signage around our property and the trails, and say you know ‘Welcome to OPSEU/SEFPO’.

11:46 Thomas: You’re on Eddy’s hiking trail.

11:49 Almeida: No, no I don’t want anything named after me, thank you very much.

11:53 Thomas: I know that I’m asking you questions, but just for our listeners, when we got told we were the successful bidder, I called the mayor. And the mayor was very very happy that we want to honour the history of the place, the access and all those types’ of things. And for anybody listening to this, the mayor has promised to work with us, introduce us to people that, you know because we will need building permits all those sort of things like demo permits. So, the conversation with the mayor, which is the beginning of the conversation with the community, was really excellent. But I know the number of emails I’ve had, but could you maybe just talk about the excitement I think in the community, in the area that we got it, not someone who wants to put up high rise condos.

12:49 Almeida: So, I mean, I’ve lost the track of the number of emails. We’ve gotten a substantial amount of emails from our membership, and we got a whole bunch from the community in regards to that their happy and we wanted to make sure it was clear that our intent is to use it for our members, to use it as an education facility and grounds. And to also have it as some place, because we’ve heard from our members and activists that one of the hurdles that they’ve had when they go to educationals, or they have to attend conferences and that, is that their families aren’t always along with them. So, obviously Smokey, as things progress and as we develop the property we’re going to see what the board of the day decides what they want to use it for or how they want to use it. But ideally, what we’re envisioning and taking what the members have told us, what community has told us, is that it’s going to be family friendly. It’s going to be member friendly. And it’s going to give us an opportunity to engage with many young people, in particular families who are bringing their children. And that will give us an opportunity to have discussions with them, why their mom or dad or parental unit is learning and what they’re doing in life other than their jobs. I mean, because it’s a passion. Most people do this, as you know, for a passionate.

14:58 Thomas: So, from the community though, the outreach from our members who actually over the years attended a training session there, because it was a government facility, we have a local president who actually installed the internet or the tech system. So he called me, he actually installed all of that. So just quickly, what was it originally used for?

14:54 Almedia: So originally it was used by the ministry. From what I’ve read, it was a training for the Foresters, there was training for people that was in the ministry – it was used for all kinds of things. Matter of fact, I was talking to some of the folks in the community there, it used to be used as a campsite, and they would have people from high schools or from grade eight who would stay there for a week or whatever to camp and learn about nature. So its main principle was education, so we’re not far off the mark Smokey in regards to what we want to use it for obviously.

15:56 Thomas: Yeah, and I think the set-up, as you pointed out to me, is conducive to what we want to use it for.

16:04 Almeida: Yeah.

16:05 Thomas: So we’re going to wrap up. Any final thoughts?

16:07 Almeida: In the end, I think for us as an organization the more we can do to sort of build relationships in communities, and the more that we could do for our members in regards to being able to support them in the work they do and defending not just union rights, but workers’ rights in general, I think is a step in the right direction. So, I’m happy that the board endorsed this one hundred percent. I’m happy always, you’re a great mentor and a great supporter, and a visionary, and I hope that we continue to do great things and I know that we will.

16:24 Thomas: Yes, I agree. So, in conclusion though folks, let’s talk about the pandemic for a second. It’s presented challenges, but also opportunities too, and I think this Frost Centre is one of those opportunities. But I’m very very proud of the work of our Executive Board, our staff and how they’ve made the pivot to working remotely, and did it in record time. We were the first organization to work remotely, and I can’t thank our staff enough for swinging that. You know it was a monumental undertaking, so, I can only imagine what bigger enterprises like governments faced. During these times, I think in many ways, the pandemic has made our union even stronger. I think you and I have talked about this, the testament to the fact of the professionalism of our membership in going into congregate settings, very high risk settings, and the number of infections – one’s too many, one death is one tragic death too many – but the numbers have been very very low during the pandemic. And I think that our membership has proven to the government and to the public the value of public services and the work that they do. I think that you and I both would agree that a big shout out to our membership that go to work every day, or working remotely to keep other people safe, just a big shout out and thank you to all of our members for everything they do every day. I’m going to leave the last word to you Eddy.

18:53 Almeida: The only thing I’m going to say is folks, until then stay safe and take care – and thanks for everything you do.

19:01 Thomas: Thank you, folks.