Friends of the Old School a case study in community action

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The days of the Mindemoya Old School building in Mindemoya looked to be destined for the wrecker’s ball a couple of years ago, coming right down to the wire as Central Manitoulin council pursued plans for a multi-plex community centre that would replace the antiquated Mindemoya arena. Observers of the debate at council could be forgiven for thinking the demise of the historic building was a fait accompli—a done deal—given the seeming intransigence of a couple of council members and the allocation of budget dollars for the demolition.

But then something changed.

A small but determined group of community members came forward to advocate for the preservation of the historic edifice. At first, the group was just a collection of individuals who attended the public input sessions held by council to express their dismay at the demolition plans.

That gained little traction.

It’s easy to make suggestions, to offer alternatives or to hypothesize alternative solutions if one doesn’t have any skin in the game council members pointed out, going on to set up a committee to move forward with the multi-plex plan.

Individuals concerned about the fate of the building looked abroad for support, bringing in historical preservation architects to assess the building and prepare a report.

Still little traction. There was no viable business plan. No-one willing to step up and put the aforementioned “skin in the game,” noted council. With no sustainable or viable business plan to assess, the wrecking ball moved closer.

Seemingly insurmountable concerns abounded. Asbestos’ hoary head was raised (without a lot of evidence to support the concerns), roof repairs were cited as being too expensive to tackle, the heating system was a bust, buried oil tanks presented an environmental nightmare—the list was extensive.

The group of like-minded individuals bent on saving the Mindemoya Old School realized that, without a well-organized local champion, the building was doomed to demolition—nobody was going to ride in on a white horse from off-Island to save their damsel. So, they created a champion, going on to form Friends of the Mindemoya Old School (FOMOS) and incorporating as a not-for-profit—literally creating that champion.

There was still a mountain ahead for that champion to climb—but now there was a champion.

That was just the beginning, of course, there was still that business plan and viable path forward to sustainability to come up with. So, they did. COVID threw some serious curves into the mix, making getting those plans together even more challenging for a group of volunteers. But dogged determination and the willingness by several individuals to put their own skin forward bought extensions of deadlines that culminated in a business plan.

Studies concluded that the asbestos concerns were overblown, the buried oil tank failed to surface, and a major donor offered to step up on the roof repairs. Surveys were conducted and estimates made, funding sources researched and applications made.

Thanks to the hard work and determination of FOMOS members, that business plan proved to be the final link in a chain that would bring enough council members onside and willing to give FOMOS a chance.

This past week, an open house invited the public in to see just how solid the old building’s bones are and to allay some of the rumours and disinformation swirling around debate on the building’s fate.

If ever there were to be a case study on fighting city hall, FOMOS could write the book. From fait accompli, to organized advocacy, to rolled sleeves and opened wallets, chapter by chapter, FOMOS has inched the Mindemoya Old School building back from the precipice of oblivion. A small group of individuals with passion and dogged determination can indeed fight city hall.

The verdict is still out on the Mindemoya Old School. There is a lot of work to be done, money to be raised and regulations to be met, but judging from the past few years, FOMOS will likely prove equal to the task—provided the community gets behind them.

If anyone deserves the chance, it is them.