Letter: Thoughts regarding the ‘Old School’ from someone who bought one

An offer of mentorship from an experienced hand

To the Expositor:

As a seasonal resident of Central Manitoulin I have watched the ongoing controversy in regards to the possible demise of the Old School in Mindemoya.

Several local citizens have mentioned in this newspaper some possible worthwhile uses for this building that certainly hold merit and have been done elsewhere.

As a business person based in Sudbury I have direct experience with the repurposing of an older school. In 2012 we purchased at auction, the recently closed St. Christopher School on CKSO Rd on the south edge of the city. As wholesale distributors of paperback books and bingo supplies, we had previously rented space at three different warehouses scattered around the Sudbury basin. Acquiring this 1960s vintage building, large enough to house everything under one roof, was a blessing for us. The side benefit was becoming our own landlord and paying ourselves first. 

Just within Sudbury, numerous decommissioned schools have been resurrected as premises for private businesses such as wholesale distribution, day care centres, a testing lab, mining tech firms, a communications firm, non profit organizations and of course apartment buildings. Even Health Sciences North bought one on Walford Rd and converted into a satellite facility. The City of Greater Sudbury bought a school in Falconbridge where it stores its archives.

Could individual rooms at the Old School be rented out to townships and First Nations where they could store their archives and artifacts safely? Perhaps another affordable room could become a universal meeting space for service clubs and volunteer groups. A trades business could make the entire building their home with an in-house training facility for apprentices and another space as a showroom. I have seen a real estate firm and realty law firm take up adjoining space in such a building to provide one-stop services to the public alongside a renovation and plumbing firm. Those synergies created additional business for all of them. Years ago the old Holiday Lanes Bowling alley on Regent St. in Sudbury was converted into a lovely medical services center that still thrives today. There are many possibilities for conversion when a building is of sound construction.

The one point I will make is that it typically takes the initiative, foresight and investment of an entrepreneur to pull it all together into a viable project. It is not likely that the good will of a few local citizens alone will make this happen. It takes time, money and work but there are many examples of this being done successfully.

Potential tenants with funds in their bank have to be recruited, renovations and upgrades of utilities have to be costed out. This will determine if there is an economic case to be made for repurposing this vintage building. Good ideas and positive vibes alone will not do it as who of those folks will put up their hand and say ‘I will bankroll and run this project?’ But do not be overwhelmed by what a professional consultant will tell you ‘needs’ to be done in terms of upgrades, as often there is not a great cost to repurposing a school that will offer affordable rents. Not everyone requires class A Toronto space in which to operate. We spent about $40,000 and we were in business in a 17,000 sq ft building within a month.

There are innumerable derelict and collapsed buildings that litter the landscape in Northern Ontario making us look like an ailing backwater. Has anyone driven down Hwy 69 in the last 20 years to witness the desolation near the Ontario Provincial Police station at Still River, on the way to Britt? Yet no one is in a rush to clear this disgusting blight from the landscape. 

However the old Mindemoya school is no such case, so what is the rush to tear down this seemingly sound structure. Why not take more time for some well informed thought? 

A committee of local interested citizens and business people could organize a trip to Sudbury to visit the older converted schools here to put some wind in their sails as to what possibilities have been demonstrated by others. You need not fear being ‘early adopters’ of this well proven concept. There are many smart entrepreneurs among you who could make this happen. 

I can give such interested parties a list of the many converted schools in the Sudbury area that could be visited, including my own. We are on the web.

Douglas Burke, director

Berri Books Inc. and Bingo Pro Inc.