Council discussions with Big Lake Association strike a positive tone

BIG LAKE – After several months of sometimes acrimonious debate, there is some positive news on the Big Lake Schoolhouse front following a recent meeting between members of Central Manitoulin council, staff and members of the Big Lake Community Association. 

With a roof damaged by heavy ice buildup on the historic building, several members of Central Manitoulin council made it clear they were loath to spend the significant amount of money it was suggested by staff and contractors that the community centre would require—particularly with the Sandfield Hall standing ready to receive the Big Lake community just a 10 minute drive away.

Still, the Big Lake community rallied around the building that has served as a community centre for years. With concerns about mold and damage to the building, along with the past two years of pandemic, the Big Lake Community Association has been stymied in conducting any events or fundraisers.

The issue revolved around the 20 year lease on the building from the municipality which put the onus for general maintenance on the association, but left the municipality on the hook for major issues. Due to the amount of time that had lapsed between the discovery of the damage, the realization of its scope and the suggestion to report the damage to the municipality’s insurer, staff maintained that the insurer would not cover the repairs. This was compounded by a general consensus on council that the municipality has a surfeit of buildings, the result of the decades-old amalgamation of several communities into the entity that became the Town of Central Manitoulin.

The Big Lake Community Association maintained that the situation was the responsibility of the municipality, while some members of council suggested that the costs should be borne by the association. Key to the discussion was an offer by the Sandfield group to welcome the Big Lake organization and their events with open arms.

The debate over the fate of the Big Lake Schoolhouse caused significant acrimony between some members of the association and councillors, but following a recent meeting to discuss the terms of the lease, cautious optimism has raised its head. 

“We got some positive vibes,” said Big Lake Community Association member Lois Keller about the meeting with the town. “We are hoping to get a better idea of what they want and what they are asking for. Things are looking much better than they were.”

Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens agreed with Ms. Keller’s assessment of the meeting. “I think we made good progress,” he said. “Hopefully, it isn’t as major a calamity as was first thought. I think there is a general will to continue for the Big Lake Community Association. We are trying to find a happy medium between dollars and cents and common sense. There seems to be a growing interest.”

Mayor Stephens confirmed that the Big Lake Community Association holds a 25-year lease, with about 20 years remaining. “There is a 90-day termination clause, but nobody is suggesting implementing it. Both sides are interested in finding a solution.”

For her part, Ms. Keller said she was concerned that residents in the municipality do not understand what is going on. “When I was taking a petition around, I found I was spending half-an-hour explaining the situation,” she said. “Council seems bent on building their multiplex; what is going to happen to the halls in Providence Bay and other communities when that happens?” She explained that members of the association feel they are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to the small community halls across the municipality.

Although she is optimistic about things going forward, Ms. Keller felt a sense of déjà vu. “We thought we had things solved before at the property committee and then, when it got to council, things changed.”