The concept of multiple organizations sharing space and resources is not a new one. Since 2015, however, the Ontario government has expressed a new dedication to fostering these collaborations as a key element of the cost-efficient and effective delivery of services to Ontario's diverse communities. This idea of space- and resource-sharing has coalesced around the concept of a "community hub".

There is no universal definition of a community hub. The essential feature seems to be the delivery of health, education, community and/or social services in close proximity, often through coordination between or consolidation of agencies, in response to local needs. A community hub can be a school, neighbourhood centre, early learning centre, library, a place of worship, or another public or private space.

In August 2015, Premier Wynne's Community Hubs Framework Advisory Group, mandated to "review provincial policies, research best practices, and develop a framework for adapting existing properties into community hubs", released a report titled Community Hubs in Ontario: A Strategic Framework and Action Plan (the "Community Hubs Action Plan"). The report identified barriers that organizations currently face when attempting to set up community hubs, and presented recommendations to address those barriers.

Community Hub Development — Current Barriers

The current process of setting up a community hub in Ontario is characterized by fragmentation of planning, funding, service delivery and information availability. The Community Hubs Action Plan grouped these challenges into three categories: (1) planning; (2) integrated service delivery; and (3) community infrastructure/public properties (although community hubs may be, and often are, situated on private property).

1. Planning

Organizations reported challenges dealing with multiple ministries and, in some cases, multiple programs within the same ministry during the planning process, each of which had unique timelines, funding agreements, and reporting and accountability requirements. This was especially true of projects that cut across multiple municipal jurisdictions.

Community Hub Action Plan recommendations include supporting integrated and longer-term planning; revising the Infrastructure Ontario Loan Program to expand eligibility; exploring innovative financing models such as social enterprise, social finance, and public-private partnerships; and increasing local capacity for planning and community hub development.

2. Integrated Service Delivery

Organizations expressed a desire to go beyond co-locating projects towards integrating service delivery. Because of bounded and inflexible funding sources, obtaining start-up and operational funding was especially difficult for integrated programming. Organizations were also concerned about harmonizing organizational cultures, identities and priorities, and potential job losses.

Community Hub Action Plan recommendations include incentivizing organizations for integrated service delivery; simplifying accountability requirements for transfer payments and capital approval processes; and working with the Treasury Board Secretariat's new Centre of Excellence for Evidence-Based Decision Making to develop an outcomes-based evaluation and measurement structure.

3. Community Infrastructure / Public Properties

Difficulty accessing and affording public property in which to locate community hubs was an issue singled out for separate consideration. Currently, individual ministries prepare capital plans based on their own needs. No provincial process or database exists to review the total inventory of surplus property. This makes it difficult for organizations to identify property available for use or acquisition.

In addition, surplus public property must generally be sold at fair market value. For example, Infrastructure Ontario permits the sale of surplus government properties to not-for-profit organizations at "market value" prior to the property being placed on the open market for sale. However, organizations felt that requiring payment of market value did not account for the economic and social value of repurposing assets for the public good.

Community Hub Action Plan recommendations include developing a more effective provincial strategy for managing and disposing of surplus public properties.

Community Hub Development — Solutions and Benefits

Depending on how a community hub is structured, participating organizations can begin addressing many of the challenges described above without waiting for legislative or policy changes. For example, the Community Hubs Framework Advisory Group heard from organizations that establishing shared agreements at the very beginning of community hub development can help manage the challenges of integration.

Organizations may also benefit from participation in a community hub arrangement that is thoughtfully structured, either through agreements between the organizations and/or the creation of a separate legal entity. A well-structured community hub may permit organizations to:

  • Operate social enterprises without risking charitable status under the Income Tax Act;
  • Receive tax benefits and reduce administrative burden;
  • Streamline the procurement process, especially if hub participants have differing obligations under the Broader Public Sector Accountability Act, 2010 and provincial directives;
  • Allocate risk and responsibility appropriately among hub participants;
  • For lead organizations receiving grant funding for large projects (for example, renovations), "de-risk" the conditions associated with the grant.

Six Ministers have been individually mandated to develop policies and initiatives to promote community hubs within their portfolios, and a committee of Deputy Ministers has been assembled to oversee the implementation of the Community Hub Action Plan recommendations. While we wait to see how certain barriers to community hub development will be addressed by the public and private sector, there are legal challenges that can be managed today.