Big Lake School property deemed as surplus by Central Manitoulin council

The Big Lake Community Association may soon get its wish and take ownership of the old schoolhouse.

Negotiations to take place for purchase by Big Lake Community Association

CENTRAL MANITOULIN—Council for the municipality of Central Manitoulin has declared the Big Lake School property as surplus and staff has been instructed to enter into negotiations for its purchase with the Big Lake Community Association (BLCA).

“This is a long-standing issue,” stated Councillor Derek Stephens at a council meeting last week. “A lot of the people here tonight on Zoom for this meeting are here because they are members of the Big Lake Community Association and are passionate about the building. I hope, through negotiations, the property is turned over to the association who built, paid for and have used the building. Hats off to them, and I hope the negotiations go well.”

“I would like to put forward the motion to declare the Big Lake School property as surplus and for staff to be instructed to enter into negotiations with the (BLCA),” said Councillor Stephens.

Councillor Rose Diebolt seconded the motion which passed without any opposition.

A recommendation to this effect had come from the municipal property committee, after a presentation made by Lois Middaugh of BLCA at a meeting earlier in the week. 

“We are attending this meeting with the intent of offering to purchase the Big Lake schoolhouse,” said Ms. Middaugh. “This offer would have been discussed prior to your decision to divest of the property,” she said, noting she had been told by a Central Manitoulin office representative that this was still being worked on as directed by council, getting estimates for remediation and repairs as well as revising/clarifying the lease agreement and the BLCA would be contacted as things progressed. However, “when she did contact us, it was only to tell us, ‘here is the Zoom information to attend the meeting as observers.’ We were not given the opportunity for discussion, as promised.”

Ms. Middaugh told the committee the SS No. 2 Big Lake Schoolhouse was built in 1926 by local people, “our forefathers. The property was donated by the Moody family on the condition that if it was ever to close, the property would be deeded back to the donating family, much like what is being done with the Spring Bay dump property. The school was closed in 1967 but remained in Sandfield township ownership, and when the townships amalgamated, it was turned over as part of ward three (Sandfield) to the municipality of Central Manitoulin.”

“Between 1967 and the beginning of the (BLCA) it was maintained by Big Lake Women’s Institute with the agreement that they had lifetime usage of the building,” continued Ms. Middaugh. The BLCA had its first 20-year lease agreement starting in approximately 1998, “and the second agreement, I believe, was signed April 2019. Without the maintenance put into the building by the two groups, I do not believe it would still be standing today.”

“It has not been operational since November 2018 when we closed and since that time, due to the damage caused by ice and snow damage, and later as a further result of mould damage,” continued Ms. Middaugh. She outlined several accomplishments by the BLCA over the years with its major fundraising and government grants including a large addition to the existing building, and with the addition of the kitchen they also built wheelchair friendly bathrooms, wheelchair friendly ramps, and a  large deck. “We had a field bed installed, as well as playground equipment (in excess of $30,000), had a water treatment system put in, and built an exterior storage shed.”

“With this and the investment itself that we have put into the building and grounds, and with the volunteer hours of our local taxpayers, I am sure in excess of over $100,000 has gone toward the building,” Ms. Middaugh told the committee. “I will not get into which party failed to meet their responsibility, leading to part of the structural damage that has led in turn, to the existing situation. It has been done and there is nothing left to say of that.”

“I would however, like to point out that incorrect information was supplied to the public by council and should be corrected,” continued Ms. Middaugh. “The first was made on Facebook by one of the councillors, that we did not meet our obligations under the lease for reporting repairs and maintenance. Those additions were made many, many years ago and the last one is the comment made by a councillor, our own ward representative, that we had done nothing over the last summer to raise funds for repairs, when in fact we held yard sales almost every weekend and attended craft sales to sell our goods.”

“Based on the above information we are prepared to make the following offer,” said Ms. Middaugh. She explained BLCA would like to purchase the property for one dollar as is, and because BLCA is a not-for- profit organization they would like to be tax exempt, “paying no property taxes whatsoever for the duration of the time that we have the building.”

“I would at  this time like to point out that we are one municipality and should be treated as one organization but the fact is that we re divided into three wards and there is a reason for the three wards. You identify us as such in your tax collection and every four years municipal elections are held and at that time each of the three wards have the opportunity to appoint councillors for their ward only, and you are only allowed to vote for your award, so your award representative will support you and the people in your ward. They are appointed by the taxpayers in those wards to represent these wards. The fact that we have two councillors from each ward means that each ward still keep its own identity. Because of this, I would like to see that we are treated equally.”

“We welcome a councillor from our ward to sit on our (BLCA) committee as long as their best interest is for the betterment of our ward,” said Ms. Middaugh. As well, the BLCA is asking “that all legal costs to do with this transition be paid for by the municipality of Central Manitoulin.”

“You were looking to divest yourself of this property, this is the proper way to do it,” stated Ms. Middaugh. “This is giving it back to the taxpayers who built it, who invested their time, money and energy into it. The Municipality of Central Manitoulin has put zero dollars into it other than to pay the insurance because they own the building.”

“We are asking you as taxpayers, and as a result of close to 600 signatures on a petition, that were signed by local taxpayers and people who participate in the local functions in Big Lake, to take this offer into consideration and sell it to us at the price that we have asked,” continued Ms. Middaugh.

“The township would no longer be responsible for the building or property,” said Ms. Middaugh. “It would also ensure that the people of ward three are able to maintain their community centre, their community spirit and their identify and be able to offer to our people, our seniors and our young families the opportunity to continue to use this building and to protect the heritage that goes with it.”

Without the building, there would no longer be the BLCA, and also at risk is the Big Lake Women’s Institute, Ms. Middaugh told the meeting.

“We are asking you to be fair with your distribution of the funds collected through our taxes and help us maintain our heritage and provide the necessary building which is rightfully ours already, at no cost to you ever, and give back to our community that which we have already paid for.”

Ms. Middaugh said, “if you do not want to lose the support of the ward in this municipality and avoid controversy, please do the right thing for the taxpayers of this ward. The fact of the continuous donations we have given over the last 20-plus years, in excess of $20,000, it must show we have been doing something right.”

“Thank you, Lois for your remarks. I’m in agreement with your proposal,” said Councillor Stephens. “I was elected in ward one, but as a councillor I do the best for the community, the entire municipality. I like your offer and agree the municipality has not paid anything except for insurance on the building. I have no problem turning the building over to the (BLCA), to those who build it up over the years.”

“You mentioned never having been given the opportunity to present your proposal to purchase the building,” said councillor Dale Scott. “I know of meetings where this was discussed, and your executive said your group had turned down that option.”

Ms. Middaugh said there has been a lack of communication, and that BLCA thought there were going to be meetings held to go back and forth on options for the building. “Then we were caught off-guard when we were told a decision to divest of the building was being looked at without a meeting taking place with our group.”

Mayor Richard Stephens said, “I can agree with Lois’ interpretation. There was to be further discussions held on options and what to do with the property. We were waiting for the information on the proposed (cost) for the damage to the interior of the building. Once all the information was gained, the intent was to meet with the association and discuss this. But it never got to that point.” 

“I’ll admit I was not involved directly with the BLCA as to everything that has happened. But I agree the best outcome is for the BLCA to look after the building,” said councillor Angela Johnston.

Councillors Derek Stephens and Steve Shaffer forwarded and seconded the recommended motion from the municipal property committee (which was approved by council) which reads in part, “that we recommend to council that the Big Lake School house property be declared as surplus, and that staff enter into negotiations with the Big Lake Community Association for purchase of said surplus property.”