Billings council presented with proposal to purchase Old Church on the Hill

Old Church on the Hill in Kagawong

KAGAWONG – Billings Township council members received a proposal from a group of citizens to purchase the Old Church on the Hill in Kagawong and turn it into community-owned event space, citing the proposal as interesting.

“Good evening and thank you to council for the opportunity to present the results of a survey we conducted at the Kagawong Market on July 29,” said Bob Cacciotti at a council meeting earlier this week. “As a group of citizens from Billings Township, we thought it would be informative to run a survey at the Kagawong market. There were 55 people who filled out the survey, 29 were residents and 26 were either full-time or seasonal residents on Manitoulin Island or visitors.” He noted respondents felt that while there has been much improvement in the township website and dissemination of information, there appears to be room for more improvement.

Mr. Cacciotti explained, “it is very clear from the survey data that 78 percent of the participants wish to see community activities in Billings, including festivals, arts and musical programs, presentations, stage shows, etc. To respond to this overwhelming need, we propose to purchase the Old Church on the Hill from the township and repurpose it as a community-owned event space.” 

Mr. Cacciotti explained the steps for acquisition, noting that upon council’s approval of the acquisition an in-depth community survey will be conducted to ask citizens whether they would support the Old Church on the Hill as a venue and what they would specifically like to participate in. “If there is a favourable community response, the purchase will be finalized with the township. Non-profit designation will be sought to access available grants and funding for ongoing upkeep, repairs and renovations to make the church into a more user-friendly community space. Things like the lack of washrooms and plumbing will be addressed.” 

“Terms of reference will be developed to provide a steering committee to manage the space,” said Mr. Cacciotti. He pointed out fundraising will be undertaken to assist in raising money to purchase, improve and operate the Old Church on the Hill and social media would be utilized to keep people informed of progress and to promote events. He also pointed out the right of first refusal would be offered to the township.

“The benefits of this proposal to the township are many,” said Mr. Cacciotti. “Taxes paid by non-profit, insurance paid by non-profit, maximizing the use of a historic community asset, promoting the rejuvenation of the church while maintaining its historical significance dating back to 1881; promoting Kagawong as a community-oriented and fun place to come. It would also provide economic spin-off to local businesses and contribute to a vibrant community spirit.”

“This group’s single focus is to make excellent use of this historical building,” said Mr. Cacciotti. He added, “this group recognizes that we are living in very unusual circumstances due to COVID-19, however we still feel it’s important to move forward with this endeavour as it will be of great benefit to Billings and the Island as a whole.

“I do have a couple of questions for Bob, and thank Bob for his presentation,” said Councillor Bryan Barker. “I’m glad you recognize that we are in the midst of COVID-19 and are limited to what we can and can’t do in term of events.” 

Mr. Cacciotti pointed out the survey was conducted once, on July 29, and he said if for some reason the group had to sell the church the township would have the first option of purchasing it back. 

Councillor Barker asked who the members of the group that are looking to purchase the building are. “We have an enthusiastic group who are not looking for recognition at this time, but who would work tirelessly on this project,” said Mr. Cacciotti.

“If the township is selling an asset, we should know who we are selling it to,” replied Councillor Barker. 

Mr. Cacciotti wondered if this would affect the possible sale of the church. “As for who, the group is made up of Billings citizens; we don’t want to divulge who at this point. The group is made up of residents who are very committed to this and making this beneficial to the township.” 

Councillor Michael Hunt indicated he liked the presentation made, but wondered what benefit another group purchasing the building would have over the township fixing it up and doing the same.
“That is a valid point, the township could do this,” said Mr. Cacciotti.

Councillor Sharon Alkenbrack said, “I like our website, it has improved a lot from where it was; it is 1,000 times better and we need to thank our office staff for this.” She also noted, “one of the things I noted in the survey is that it talked about the need to hold Christmas concerts. There has been an annual one organized by Jill Ferguson. The person who filled in the survey has obviously never attended any of them.”  

“At some date we will need to know who the group is who are proposing to buy the church,” said Councillor Alkenbrack. 

“I would like to thank Bob for putting all this information together and presenting it to council,” said Councillor Sharon Jackson. “One thing I would have liked in the survey is a question about what the strengths of the township are; and what people love about Billings.” She also noted “I understand our reluctance as to who is in the group (looking to purchase) but I agree we couldn’t consider selling the building until we know who is involved.”  

Mayor Ian Anderson said, “this is an interesting proposal and worthy further exploration.” He noted in 2021 there is extensive work being planned for rebuilding Main Street Hill and a portion of the church property will be part of this. As well, he pointed out the Kagawong market had a successful year located at the church property. “It was well received in that area,” and indicated, “there may be times the municipality may want to use the building as well and that could be negotiated. 

“In going through the comments of those surveyed, I found a lot of extremely positive points as to what is being provided in the community and some of the things people are asking for makes it obvious they haven’t gone downtown, for instance the improvements we are making to the marina.” 
“I would point out this council and staff have done a lot to communicate and provide information better to our residents,” said Mayor Anderson. “You have provided an interesting proposal to council to consider, and one we will give some serious thought to.”