Mindemoya Old School building gets reprieve and consideration for potential new usages

Central Manitoulin Old School.

Central council sets committee to create Old School business plan

CENTRAL MANITOULIN—The Central Manitoulin municipal council chambers were filled to overflowing with placard carrying supporters of the Mindemoya Old School as council was set to debate a motion to issue a request for proposals for demolition of the building. Two delegations to council and a series of letters submitted as correspondence to council put forth impassioned pleas for council to put greater effort into saving the building by striking a committee formed of councillors, members of the public and specialized experts. In the end, the public pressure and arguments put forth by supporters of the Mindemoya Old School won the day—at least for now.

The first delegation was presented by Island businessman and farmer Keith Harfield, who essentially said simply that the Mindemoya Old School was an historic building for which a large number of Island residents have a great deal of attachments and was well worth preserving.

“I was caught a little off-guard,” admitted Mr. Harfield following the meeting on the brevity of his presentation. “I was expecting to follow the presentation by Ted Williamson and I didn’t want to step on his presentation.” Mr. Harfield noted that the Williamson presentation was a collaborative work by many members of the community. “Two ladies really put a lot into effort into this, Laureen Martel and Pat Costigan, and Bert Cooper was another one who contributed a lot, Pat really instigated getting Ted to deliver the presentation.”

Placard bearing Mindemoya Old School supporters gather in the Central Manitoulin council chambers prior to a debate on demolition of the historic building.
photo by Michael Erskine

Mr. Williamson started his presentation by thanking mayor and council for allowing him “to speak on behalf of some members of Central Manitoulin Historical Society, and others present, and also those not present who have expressed their concern of the topic of the demolition of the Mindemoya Continuation School.” Mr. Williamson stressed that he was “not here speaking for or representing any other organization or business that I am affiliated with.”

Mr. Williamson went on to note that the stone and brick building “holds testament to the quality and pride of the masons and tradesmen of the day. Towns are made up of different buildings and structures, both old and new, and serve to differentiate who we are. Who we are has a lot to do with who we were.”

Mr. Williamson explored briefly the various possibilities for repurposing the Mindemoya Old School, including housing, assisted living, office space, cottage industries, recreational space for all ages year round, up to and including use as a satellite school for Cambrian College or Laurentian University. “There are endless possibilities if you explore deep enough and have the vision and determination to get it done,” he said.

The dollar amounts being thrown out by councillors in the debate was cited as a concern by Mr. Williamson.

“There is a concern that dollar amounts are being thrown out and off the cuff as high as $1.5 million,” he said. “Other than the report done in 2014, I have not seen any factual dollar amount values. Throwing out non-factual numbers tends to have very negative effects to the public sentiment.”

Mr. Williamson went on to say that while council has a financial responsibility to the community, it also has a social responsibility.

“Before council makes their final decision to destroy a building of historical significance with a potential, if done properly, of being an income generator even to the point of at least covering the overhead cost and future capital costs, it is felt that a committee needs to be struck immediately to explore all possible avenues to save the building.”

Mr. Williamson suggested that such a committee should be comprised of the economic development officer, a council representative, contracted services who are knowledgeable and experienced in repurposing old buildings, contracted services with expertise in fundraising, representatives of the historical society and professional persons or members of the general public.

“This committee must be dedicated to this purpose and tasked to come up with a sound and viable business plan to save and repurpose the building,” he further suggested. “It is felt that council has not put such an official and dedicated committee together in the past and this needs to be done.”

The committee would also “need to be accountable, with monthly progress reports to council” and “be accountable to present to council, by the end of the third quarter of 2018, a sound and viable business plan.”

The group Mr. Williamson was speaking on behalf of asked for a moratorium on the demolition of the Mindemoya Old School building until the end of 2018.

“What’s the rush?” he asked. “Is one more year going to make a difference?” Mr. Williamson pointed out that the carrying costs of the Mindemoya Old School building were nominal. “It has been discussed that there are enough concerned people that would donate and fundraise to contribute in whole or in part to offset this cost,” he said. “That’s how serious this matter is being taken.”

Mr. Williamson then brought up the question of what plans were in place for the footprint of the building following its demolition. “Would it become a green space or an expansion of the recreational area for uses such as badminton or pickleball?”

He questioned whether the building could or would be put up for public tender. “There are visionary people out there that may find uses for it,” he said. “We also hope that the council does not have a hidden agenda for the property, but will be honest and open about any plans.”

Letters read out at the council meeting by Mayor Richard Stephens also questioned the council’s efforts to date to save the building. “Once it is gone, it is gone forever,” noted Mary Lochead in her handwritten missive. “The council cannot save the privately owned buildings of significance, so this is your opportunity to save at least one,” wrote Ria Bax. “We need a committee that can tap into the expertise of people who know about repurposing buildings of historical significance,” wrote Jan McQuay. “I don’t think it’s right to tear down an existing building like the Old School,” wrote Edith Armstrong. “Especially when there are seniors who are having trouble finding housing anywhere on Manitoulin.”

Mayor Stephens moved the agenda item dealing with the issuing of requests for proposals for the demolition of the Mindemoya Old School building up so that it could be dealt with expeditiously on behalf of the many people crowding into the council chambers.

The motion to issue the demolition RFPs was moved by Councillor Alex Baran and seconded by Councillor Derek Stephens and put on the floor.

Councillor Baran opened the debate by saying that while he was not usually swayed by delegations or the number of people attending a debate he was very impressed by Mr. Williamson’s presentation. He went on to point out, however, that council has been struggling with the issue of the Mindemoya Old School “for several years,” and that a more recent report that had been received by council did delve into solid numbers and the result “did not look good.” A recent appraisal gave an estimate in the range of a half million dollars. In not maintaining or dealing with maintenance issues over the years, he suggested that council “may have created a bit of our own Norisle.” The result is a temptation to “pull it out into the lake and sink it.”

Councillor Baran nonetheless said that given the passion and depth of support for saving the building he would be willing to support creating a committee to explore the matter in greater depth. “This is the first time that we have a committee that could save this building.”

Councillor Patricia MacDonald said that while what Councillor Baran had said “is supportable,” she did not want to see the matter drag onto the next council. “I just don’t want to see it put off to 2018,” she said, pointing out that the municipal elections will be taking place in the later half of 2018.

Councillor Ted Taylor said that he was pleased to see the support for the building and he would like to see the formation of the committee, but also that the cost of demolition be included in the 2018 budget deliberations. “The money could then be used to demolish the building or could be used to renovate it,” should a viable plan be found.

Councillor Linda Farquhar noted that her position was well-known and that she supported saving the historic edifice. “I would like to see a moratorium held until the end of 2018,” she said.

Councillor Dale Scott cautioned that he had come to council during an atmosphere of reaction to escalating taxes. He pointed out that the cost of renovations to the building could result in a 17 point increase in the mill rate. “Taxes were going up 10 percent every year,” he said. “Over the last two years we have seen a 25 percent drop in the mill rate. You have to realize that taxes will go back to where they were four almost four years ago.”

But then he added the caveat that “if it (the cost of saving the Mindemoya Old School) is not on the backs of the taxpayers, I am all for it.”

Councillor Derek Stephens also expressed a concern that the situation will only result in delaying the inevitable. “I don’t like to leave anything I have set out to do undone,” he said. “All we ever seem to do is to put off making the hard decisions. I don’t want to foist this decision onto the next council.”

In a recorded vote, Councillors Stephens and MacDonald voted in favour of issuing the demolition RFP, while Mayor Stephens and Councillors Farquhar, Scott and Taylor voted against. Councillor Baran abstained, which in a recorded vote counts as a negative. The motion was defeated.

The matter of forming a new subcommittee was then debated, with the result that, instead of the task being sent to the property committee where the demolition motion was recommended, the matter was sent to the finance and administration committee. The motion was moved by Councillor Baran and seconded by Councillor Farquhar.

Councillor Stephens interjected following the vote that he would like to see the committee struck as soon as possible. “I never leave anything undone,” he said. “I don’t want to leave this.”

Discussion over the makeup of the committee was discussed, with a number of six to eight suggested. “It should be an uneven number,” cautioned Clerk Ruth Frawley.

Supporters of the Mindemoya Old School declared themselves to be delighted with the result.

“We will leave no stone unturned,” announced Ms. McQuay. She noted that she had been talking to a lot of people in the community in recent weeks. “Everyone was very taken aback,” she said. “Up until the motion came to council, we thought that it was going to be used for assisted living.”