The City of Duncan’s council wants more information on a proposal from the Cowichan Green Community Association to fix and maintain the cob oven in Centennial Park.
At the council meeting on June 21, staff recommended that the city commit to spending as much as $16,500 into the restart costs of the cob oven, which would include repairs and enhanced security enhancements at the site.
But Coun. Tom Duncan proposed a successful motion that will see the issue sent to the city’s committee of the whole meeting next month to allow for further review.
He said the cob oven has been in the park for eight years and he wants information on how much it has been used in that time.
“I understand that we’re trying to get a free-standing operation in the future, but I need to know what it’s been doing for the past eight years before I make a decision,” he said.
“I want staff to tell me how it was used and how much income it has generated in that time.”
The cob oven is a “rocket stove”, a highly adaptable device that readily converts wood scraps, branches, and other plant material into immediately available heat for cooking, heating, and drying.
In 2012, Cowichan Community Kitchens, which works under the umbrella of Hiiye’yu Lelum, House of Friendship, applied for and received a grant-in-aid from the city for $2,500 for seed money to hire a project coordinator for the creation of the outdoor oven.
Since then, the city has invested another $7,500 towards the construction of the cob oven and the kitchen and garden program around it, and other funding was provided by the BC Arts Council, for an estimated amount of $22,500.
In 2013, an agreement was signed between Cowichan Community Kitchens and the city for the operation and maintenance of the facility, and citizens were allowed to apply for use of the cob oven for public or group lunch gatherings.
A staff report in April said the House of Friendship has fixed and maintained the cob oven to the best of their abilities while in operation, but, in the past year the cob oven has not been used, and ongoing vandalism and drug paraphernalia have been mitigating factors in a re-evaluation of the commitment to the oven taken by the House of Friendship, resulting in a decision to recuse themselves from the agreement.
Council decided to initiate a Request for Expressions of Interest for a group or individual to assist with the future operation and maintenance of the cob oven, and the CGCA was the sole applicant.
Coun. Bob Brooke said he has concerns with the fact that the city received just one proposal to run the oven.
“How do we know if it’s a good proposal or a poor one?” Brooke asked.
“The CGCA has laid out some costs, but there’s nothing attached to see if it’s reasonable or not. I’m afraid that we’re going into this blind.”
Judy Stafford, executive director of the CGCA, said the organization doesn’t have the financial records from the past for the oven, but in a conversation she had with the person who used to manage the site, the former manager said that the oven was getting to the point of being self sustaining.
“My intention in writing this proposal was not to come back to the city for more funding, and we have no interest in taking on another project that’s dependent on grants,” she said.
“Our whole intent is to make it self sustainable and make money through rentals. The troubles with the cob oven happened when it was not getting utilized and was not a focus of the organization running it. We’re right down the street from it and we intend to use it for cooking classes at our summer camp and other things.”
Stafford said with the security and other measures planned, vandalism and operating costs will be kept to a minimum.
She said the budget of $16,500 is just an estimate, and the CGCA would not spend the entire budget if it doesn’t have to.
But Coun. Garry Bruce said he’s not the least bit interested in the city putting any more money into the cob oven.
“I certainly don’t want the city to pay a dime for it,” he said.
“If the CGCA can get a grant or another group to support them, that would be great, but taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay anything for this.”
Coun. Jenni Capps said helping to reinvigorate the cob oven is the kind of community amenity the city should be funding.
“I support taking a closer look at this before we make any final decisions, but I think we should provide some sort of initial investment to bring it up to standards and be self sufficient,” she said.
“Things that are not used will fall into disrepair and it does take a little work and money to get them going again.”
Mayor Michelle Staples added that she has heard a lot positive comments about the oven from citizens.
“A lot of people want to hold more events in different ways these days, and the cob oven is a good place to do that,” she said.