Committee recommends delay in issuing request for proposal to demolish Mindemoya Old School

Mindemoya Old school

MINDEMOYA – Central Manitoulin’s property committee has issued a recommendation to the municipality’s council to postpone issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for the demolition of the Mindemoya Old School until at least September 2021, and that staff postpone any further work on preparation of these RFP documents until discussion occurs at the committee’s March meeting. 

As well, staff have been directed to communicate with the Friends of the Mindemoya Old School (FOTMOS) to consider options for leasing or transferring ownership of the building to them. 

This comes after the committee heard two presentations at its meeting this past Tuesday, from Alison McAllister, treasurer of FOTMOS, and Rob Leverty, executive director of the Ontario Historical Society (OHS).  

“I have been honoured to be involved with FOTMOS since my return to the area,” Ms. McAllister told the meeting. “I am honoured to be the person to announce to the committee, council members, and the observers of tonight’s meeting that Friends of Mindemoya Old School is now an incorporated not-for-profit-organization. This organization has become a legal entity and has been supported by its affiliation with the (OHS and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario). This allows the not-for-profit to sign legal agreements and make arrangements to accept charitable donations.”

The incorporation of FOTMOS took place on January 29, 2021. “Efforts of many residents, taxpayers and compassionate people within the municipality and throughout the province have made this possible,” said Ms. McAllister.

“This corporation is now an affiliate society of the (OHS), which allows access to a large support network,” continued Ms. McAllister. She noted, “the next speaker, Rob Leverty, executive director of the (OHS), has been instrumental in helping us gain legal status. Both the (OHS) and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario have provided invaluable support. You may recall that the ERA architectural firm came to Mindemoya almost exactly one year ago and produced a statement of significance which concluded that the Old School has inherent cultural value and would likely meet the criteria for heritage designation given its civic contribution.”

The goal of the incorporated not-for-profit is to preserve and restore the Mindemoya Old School and reintegrate it into the community in a productive manner, continued Ms. McAllister. She had forwarded three documents to each council member: the constitution of FOTMOS, a list of its board of directors and their bios, a FOTMOS proposal titled ‘Inspiring the future development of the Mindemoya Old School’ and a proposed budget.

The FOTMOS group, “proposes that the Municipality of Central Manitoulin consider one of two options now available. Transfer ownership of the Mindemoya Consolidated School and appropriate land to the corporation,” said Ms. McAllister. “This is the most desirable option for both parties as once ownership is transferred it becomes the asset and liability of the corporation. The municipality no longer has any responsibility for it, now or in the future. This outright ownership of the site allows all time, energy and money invested to assist in making the building a more valuable asset, which in turn increases enthusiasm and engagement from the community. Further to this, ownership will allow for the corporation to apply for registered charity status, which in turn opens access to a variety of donors both public, private and institutional, and the ability to issue tax receipts. This enables the charity to build a trust fund and planned giving program to operate and invest in the building’s future. The building would be sold to the corporation for the fee of $1.” 

A secondary option would be a long-term lease, 25 to 30 years, said Ms. McAllister. “This option would see the municipality retain ownership and would see the corporation take possession of the building through a long-term lease arrangement. The terms of the lease would be negotiated. It could include, for example, a provision that the corporation assumes responsibility for the refurbishment and upkeep of the building throughout the lease. That would be an unusual arrangement, even for a long-term lease. However, it would satisfy the municipality’s apparent wish to spend nothing for refurbishment while retaining ownership. In exchange, the municipality would waive the rental fee or charge a nominal rental fee.”

Under either of these contractual arrangements, the municipality would for fiscal year 2021 be saving $150,000 in contracts to destroy the building, Ms. McAllister told the meeting. “We sincerely hope that you would instead pledge those funds, in their entirety or a portion of them, to assist the corporation in obtaining the large grants and donations that we are looking for. That way, the municipality would help to ensure the success of this project at a cost that is already in this year’s budget. We are not asking for extra funds that could increase the tax rate, only the funds that have been allocated already.”

The proposed budget for restoration of the school features costs taken from the municipality’s Old Mindemoya School Repurposing Final Feasibility study, dated September 23, 2019.

The projects of restoration have been provided with timeframes, prioritizing the restoration by importance to the building’s integrity, she said. “Restoration timeframes will be aligned with funding applications and the scope of the grants that are available both provincially and federally. Companies will be approached for financial assistance and gift-in-kind contribution.”

“Our vision for the Mindemoya Old School: the corporation will develop a building strategy that will envelop culture, history, art, tourism, will engage seniors and promote new business for our municipality,” noted Ms. McAllister.

To move forward, “the corporation proposes that the municipality set aside the RFP for building demolition. Further, that the municipality assign a person or persons to consult with the corporation on the best plan of action for the transfer of the asset. This will further allow the corporation to complete a business plan. As a sign of good faith, the corporation asks to be allowed entry into the building over a period of time to evaluate the current condition of the building and to allow for proper preparation of the budget for refurbishment,” Ms. McAllister told the meeting. 

She explained the goal of this incorporation would be to preserve the site as well as public access to all municipal amenities that surround it. “We understand that this parcel poses some challenges for severance, and we have been engaged with the (OHS) who have a team of experts who specialize in these very situations with historical assets and municipal lands.”

Ms. McAllister said, “the municipality may see the Old School as a burden, but we see it as a great potential asset for the community. As a corporation, (FOTMOS) can take responsibility for the building, so that there will be no more fears of tax hikes in the municipality. The municipality would not be responsible for any liabilities associated with the property if a corporation takes over the building. This is why we have incorporated. A positive relationship between the two parties involved will result in a positive outcome that both parties will benefit from.”

Mr. Leverty spoke to the committee from a room in the OHS headquarters at the John Mackenzie House in Toronto which had at one time been slated to be demolished. He explained that due to a lot of community opposition, the building was restored and maintained. “It’s not about bricks and mortar, but working with the community on solutions that benefit everyone.” 

The OHS formed 133 years ago and has over 500 membership organizations, said Mr. Leverty. He pointed out OHS has a number of member organizations on Manitoulin including the Central Manitoulin Historical Society and Michael’s Bay Historical Society.

Mr. Leverty indicated that around 2008-2010, a financial crisis took place across Ontario and the world and it made groups like FOTOS more prominent in trying to become incorporated. Responsibility for working with municipalities to oversee older community buildings was downloaded to these not-for-profit groups; if not for these groups, this type of building may be lost forever. “You are caught up here with something that is not unusual,” he told the committee. 

“I would like to leave you with a few points to consider,” said Mr. Leverty. “I’ve been doing this work for 32 years, and I am incredibly impressed with the (FOTMOS) board, with its talents and mission mandates. I have received a lot of calls from people on Manitoulin supportive of the Old School.” 

It was pointed out by Councillor Angela Johnston, “this would be a whole lot easier if the building (Old School) was in a different location. The Old School is in the middle of a complex area (arena, community hall, baseball field and park).” 

In discussing the possibility of an RFP for demolition of the Old School, Councillor Johnston said, “we received a memo from Patricia (Mader, municipal co-ordinator,) and my takeaway from that is that demolishing the Old School is a lot more complicated and will cost a lot more money than we had realized. I wouldn’t want to see municipal dollars go into it but I appreciate this group (FOTMOS) has worked hard to incorporate and wants to put together a plan (for use of the building). I’d like to give them a chance to work with us to come up with a plan. I would be in favour of postponing the RFP for upwards of six months. And, the demolition process and RFP is not going to happen quickly.” 

Councillor Rose Diebolt said, “I will follow the same line on this. I would be in favour of this (demolition process being postponed for six months), but a report from the group would have to be made to us on a monthly basis. I agree the demolition will take a year to prepare and get it completed.” 

However, Councillor Derek Stephens said what he got out of the memo from Ms. Mader, “is that she is not qualified to write an RFP and our engineering company would have to write it. But there is no reason we have to stop the RFP process, we can still have the document ready to go and out the public. And I don’t see dates, times and how the Friends-of group is going to raise funds. I think we should at least continue to look at preparing the RFP.”

“We can’t ignore the overwhelming number of community members who see this building as a historic piece of property and want to retain and keep it part of the community,” said Mayor Richard Stephens. He said by working with FOTMOS, necessary time is needed to be provided to come to a proper conclusion for the best of the group and the municipality. “I think this is more important than rushing through an RFP.”

Councillor Steve Shaffer said, “from the beginning of this entire process, all I have wanted to see is a simple proposal for use of the building that we could consider. With the formation of the Friends-of group and being incorporated, they look like they are well on their way to making plans. We could wait six months and negotiate with the group and then as part of this look at a transfer of some sort. But we also need to see these plans developed, and we would need regular reports from the group. I would be in favour of putting the RFP on hold for six months to allow for negotiation.” 

Councillor Al Tribinevicius said, “this would be helpful for both council and the friends group. I am very pleased and hopeful for the process.” 

“All that being said, we have been talking about this issue for 10 years,” said Councillor Stephens. “We have seen groups come forward to study all of this but we never see anything proceed.” 

He pointed out it would take $1.55 million to restore the building. “And we aren’t talking about the problem of mold and asbestos in the building, which will cost another $500,000 or more to clear up. Do we want to put the responsibility of $1-2 million on a volunteer group to upgrade the building?” 

Councillor Johnston said she would be in favour of postponing issuing RFP documents for the demolition of the building for six months, and staff postponing any further work on the RFP documents until further discussion occurs at the March committee meeting. 

“And in the meantime, staff can meet with the Friends-of group to consider options for leasing or transferring ownership agreements,” said Councillor Diebolt.

The committee passed the recommended motion to council, with Councillor Stephens opposed.

Chair Dale Scott added, “I have heard in the past that as long as a new roof was put on the Old School it could remain indefinitely for 10-15 years. I have concerns with the building not being used and remaining empty for long periods of time. I’m hoping progress will be made to use and repurpose the building. I’m hoping the group can find a use for it, but I’m not in favour of it being left for a long time just sitting there empty.”