Letter: Friends of the Old School have not given up the fight to preserve history

“The stars” are not responsible for this heritage building being on the chopping block

To the Expositor:

Rumours are circulating that everyone has given up trying to prevent the destruction of the 99-year-old Old School, a solid brick-and-stone building in Mindemoya. The rumours are greatly exaggerated. In fact, a new group, Friends of the Old School, has arisen from the ashes of the Old School Repurposing Committee. Supporters are welcome! 

We do not agree with Central Manitoulin Councillor Dale Scott, that “the stars” are responsible for this heritage building being on the chopping block (letter to the editor: ‘The stars have not aligned on the fate of the Old School’, February 12). The truth is that in 2017, council decided the municipality had too many buildings and they could lower operating expenditures by getting rid of some. The Old School in Mindemoya was a prime target, so they cancelled the last tenant and voted to have it destroyed. That’s when some of us first stepped up to save it, and we haven’t given up.

The Friends of the Old School is working to save this heritage building for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it exists. As a solid brick building right in the village it is a valuable resource. The structure is already there, it just needs to be modified to accommodate whatever purpose is best. If nothing else, they could even put it on the market, with the proviso that the buyer can’t demolish it. For example, the whole Island needs more affordable, low-income housing. Why tear down a building when it could become apartments for people in need? 

We also recognize the historical value of the Old School, the character that it lends to our community, its solid construction and meticulous brickwork. Believe me, if it was a ramshackle, derelict, shoddy building, I would be the first to let it go. Look closely at its multi-hued brick exterior. It’s extraordinarily well-built by today’s standards, and it embodies the determination of the community to seek progress through education. 

There is another good reason that is especially relevant in the 21st century. If you are looking for the greenest building, the experts say start with one that already exists. For the past 50 years society has been mesmerized with new construction. Some builders don’t want to refurbish buildings. They prefer to dump materials in landfill sites and start from scratch. We have become a wasteful society, and our environmental impact is enormous. We are even changing the climate so fast that the United Nations warns we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030.

Now consider the Old School’s brick exterior. Clay brick is inert, naturally fireproof, it emits no gases, needs no maintenance and is impervious to chemical leaching. It lasts almost forever, and that means it has a very low environmental cost over its life-cycle. Brick buildings in Europe are hundreds, even thousands of years old. 

Bricks are a wonderful building material, and they take a lot of energy to make. To calculate roughly how much energy is embodied just in the Old School’s bricks, I estimated there are at least 12,000 bricks, and given that the energy to make a brick is around 1.7 kilowatt-hours, that means it would take 20.4 Megawatt-hours to replace those bricks. It’s about the same amount of energy needed to smelt 2,800 pounds of aluminum.

Those are important reasons to fight for the Old School.

What began as an effort to reduce the municipality’s operating costs seems to have morphed. Council now wants to build a large “multi-plex,” and Councillor Scott claims the cost of the multi-plex is “approximately the same as the five-year operational and capital cost that we will otherwise need to invest in upgrading the Providence Bay Arena, Mindemoya Arena and the Memorial Community Centre.” I asked where the five-year comparison came from, but the documents provided, the business case support document and a ‘capital and operating plan for multi-plex’ prepared by BDO do not make any such claim. The Recreation Centre Feasibility Report last June (on the municipal website) said that it would take 30 years, not five, for the operational and capital costs to be approximately equal. As an aside, the BDO document also says incorrectly that the Old School is only 79 years old.

It seems the motivation has shifted away from operational cost reductions but the Old School is still on the chopping block. The municipality doesn’t have to choose between being a landlord (at the Old School) or invest in recreation and social activities. It’s a false choice. There are many needs on Manitoulin that the Old School could fulfill, and we have now found some architects to help us envision a new future for it.

Jan McQuay