Central council votes to tender for Old School demolition

Representatives of Weengushk Film Institute, from left Jonathan Zagula, Nano Debassige and Shirley Cheechoo, toured the Old School last Friday as a potential new home for the film school.

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CENTRAL MANITOULIN—The computer screen was filled to overflowing as a record number of people joined a December 17 virtual Central Manitoulin council meeting. A packed agenda meant it took a while for the item that encouraged the high attendance to come up on the docket—a recommendation from the property committee to proceed with a request for proposals (RFP) for the demolition of the Mindemoya Old School building.

The motion to send out a RFP for demolition was moved by Councillor Derek Stephens and seconded by Councillor Steve Shaffer.

Mayor Richard Stephens requested that deputy mayor Councillor Dale Scott take over the chair for the motion as he wished to speak to the motion.

“What we are doing here has been an issue and a lot of people are upset,” said Mayor Stephens. The idea of starting the 100th year (of the Mindemoya Old School building) with the slate for demolition after celebrating the 95th birthday of one lady (Jean Ridley) and the 100th birthday of another (Mattie Becks) was distressing, he said. “To demolish a building that has stood the test of time,” he said, referencing the community history attached to the structure.

Mayor Stephens thanked resident Jim Smith for putting together a comprehensive history of the Mindemoya Old School.

He went on to note that the cost of the structure to the municipality as it stands is minimal, with approximately $1,100 in insurance and a further $400 in electricity costs.

Councillor Al Tribinevicius also spoke in favour of holding off on the demolition, citing the interest being expressed in the structure by M’Chigeeng’s Weengushk Film Institute (WFI), noting that WFI is affiliated with Brock University and that WFI’s Shirley Cheechoo is the chancellor of that university.

Councillor Rose Diebolt responded to ask what the time frame for a proposal from WFI would be.

“The letter they sent was unspecific on the time,” said Mayor Stephens, who had taken a delegation from the film school through a tour of the Old School. “They have to do their due diligence, of course.” Mayor Stephens noted that WFI currently only has room for 10 to 13 students, but gets applications from 40 to 50 students each semester.

“The issue has been going on for too many years,” responded Councillor Stephens. “It will take a million and a half dollars to repair it. It’s great that people have come to see the building, but I don’t see any guarantee. We have the money for demolition and it will make room for future expansion for the arena or for parking. It is a dilapidated building.” He went on to suggest that even though the RFP would go out, the actual demolition was unlikely to take place until the spring, leaving plenty of time for a solid proposal to come from the film school.”

Councillor Shaffer also noted that the process has been long and drawn out, going on to read a prepared statement into the record.

“Here we sit again, and debate the fate of the Old School, although this time we do so virtually. As this issue has been festering for several years, there is much ground to cover in reviewing the facts, facts that are a matter of public record. I will try not to rehash that ground, but summarize the facts. Over five years ago this process officially began, public meetings were held, two consultant reports were completed, a special committee was formed and their mandate extended, money was budgeted, tax dollars were collected on that budgeted money, all this effort and more came to the same conclusion, that repurposing or selling the Old School was not a viable option. When I was elected to council in 2018, I drew what I considered the short straw and political hot potato, I was appointed to the Old School Repurposing Committee. As a member of that former committee I feel confident and comfortable that every possible avenue has been explored in an attempt to utilize the Old School building, a building that has sat vacant for over five years. We cannot continue on this indecisive path; we cannot continue to kick this ball further down the road for yet another council to deal with. We must make a decision, a fact-based decision, not an emotional decision, on what is in the best interest of the municipality as a whole. Some may ask ‘what harm is it to wait, why rush,’ my response to that is simple, ‘what are we waiting for?’ Someone to decide now, after five years of a very public debate that they are willing to invest in this building? Why rush?  After five years this is anything but rushed, it has been a very much debated and studied topic. Waiting is costly, both financially and in terms of risks. If previous council would have moved forward on the first RFP for the removal of the building the cost to taxpayer would have been approximately $55,000, now we are looking at a doubling or tripling of that removal cost. Waiting costs the taxpayer money. This municipality has many buildings, some would argue too many buildings, buildings that are currently in use that require a significant financial investment. I chose to make that investment in building that currently provide a service to the community, not in empty structures with no foreseeable use. Yesterday we received a letter of potential interest in the Old School.  I think everyone would agree that that is a positive thing, however we have been down this path several times before, unsuccessfully. Tonight’s motion does not prevent us from considering any offer that may be forthcoming. We can proceed with the RFP as we await any potential proposals, the two events can, and should, proceed simultaneously.”

“Derek said it, Steve said it, I can’t support spending taxpayers’ money when we have an arena that needs fixing up,” said Councillor Rose Diebolt. “We need to move forward.”

Councillor Angela Johnston took exception to the suggestion that the municipality was not listening to taxpayers, noting that while she had received a number of calls about saving the Old School, she had actually received more calling for its demolition.

Councillor Johnston said that she was in favour of saving portions of the Old School to be incorporated into a commemorative model located at the museum.

Councillor Tribinevicius said that he was disappointed that the municipality could not accept an offer to repair the roof on the building, noting that the building is solidly built and would stand safe indefinitely should the danger of water damage be dealt with.

Councillor Scott said that he did not have a lot to add to the discussion, but that he agreed with the points made by Councillor Shaffer. He did, however, hold out that he might change his mind should a solid proposal be forthcoming from WFI before the RFP was accepted and the building demolished.

“Bring a business plan, bring your funds, if we are going to go forward, bring your business plan and if it is viable I would be willing to entertain it,” he said. “But it has to be viable.”

Councillor Stephens called for a recorded vote.

Councillors Stephens, Diebolt, Johnston and Shaffer voted in favour of the RFP for demolition. Mayor Stephens and Councillor Tribinevicius voted against the motion.

“I see this decision as an insult to both the people who have been working to save this historic building and as an insult to the Weengushk Film Institute,” said Jan McQuay, a community activist who has been active in the attempts to save the Old School. “Derek Stephens’ comment that Weengushk still has time to come up with a plan while the RFP to destroy the building goes out and would likely be executed in early spring—that comment shows a complete lack of regard for the opinions of many residents who are opposed to its destruction and a lack of good faith in making this a race.”

Ms. McQuay continued, “What can satisfy the destroyers on council? Some councillors don’t want to rent and they don’t want to sell and they don’t want to use it themselves. It’s looking like they just want to destroy the building. They don’t even have plans for the land.”

As for going forward, Ms. McQuay said she and the other supporters of the Old School have not thrown in the towel. “We are willing to help WFI develop a plan as quickly as feasible,” said Ms. McQuay. “Making this a race against time is ugly.”

In a related motion, council debated a recommendation to allocate $200,000 to $250,000 a year towards building a multi-use facility—in the end deciding to defer the motion to the committee of the whole as part of the overall budget debates.