CENTRAL MANITOULIN – The lobbying efforts of the Friends of the Mindemoya Old School have paid off, for now, as Central Manitoulin council voted last week to hold off on issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for demolition of the historic old stone building until at least the fall.
The motion to hold off on issuing the RFP until September and to halt any further work by staff on the RFP documents until the next property meeting in March was moved by Councillor Angela Johnston and seconded by Councillor Rose Diebolt.
Councillor Derek Stephens made his opposition to the motion clear, noting “this issue has been going on for a long time, it’s postpone, postpone, postpone, for 10 years now.”
Councillor Stephens went on to say that he was “a little upset” the municipality was not going to proceed with preparing the documents necessary for issuing the RFP. Councillor Stephens noted that the information required for issuing an RFP included the detailed information on contaminants and structural issues that would be necessary whether the building was to be demolished, sold or leased to an outside entity.
“By the time that information is put together, if we hold off until September we will be into yet another year,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with going into talks about the Old School, I just don’t see why we have to stop work on those documents. I have a problem doing this.”
Councillor Johnston pointed out that the motion did not postpone work on the RFP documentation until September, only the actual issuing of the RFP. “It is only until the March 9 property meeting,” she said.
Councillor Dale Scott said that he agreed with Councillor Johnston. “I like the idea of going into March,” he said, noting that this would give him time to go over the information that had been provided to council by staff on the matter.
“It will also give us some time to talk to the new group,” agreed Mayor Richard Stephens. “It will give us all more information to deal with.”
The motion passed with Councillor Stephens opposed.
Construction on the stone multi-storey Mindemoya Old School was completed and the first classes held in 1922. It served as one of the province’s first (if not the first) continuation schools, bringing together students from a number of one-room schoolhouses in the area in one facility. The school operated as a public school until Manitoulin Secondary School was built in M’Chigeeng in 1969 and high school students moved from the facility now known as Central Manitoulin Public School and elementary students left the Old School building.
The building became the municipal office until the current building was constructed, at which point it was turned into a business centre with lawyer offices, a dentist and several other social agencies taking up residences.
Concerns about the high cost of renovating the building and dealing with asbestos and other contaminants in the building led to a decision by Central Manitoulin to close the facility, a process it began in 2016 by evicting the last tenants.
Since then, individuals in the community have voiced their dismay at the decision to demolish the Old School at public meetings and before council committees. There have been some voices calling on the council to stay the course on demolition, but the vast majority of the presentations have called for the building to be repurposed.
A committee was formed with a mandate to find a way of repurposing the Old School, but after several months the committee was unable to put forward a sustainable proposal.
Comments in support of finding a new use for the building made by the mayor following council’s decision to issue a RFP for demolition led to a call for the mayor to resign by two councillors. That motion was withdrawn following a debate that made it clear it would not receive enough support to pass.
Since then, a presentation by the Ontario Historical Society, which outlined how historical buildings and other structures have been preserved, primarily focussed on the creation of a free-standing non-profit with the sole mandate of managing the building. That led to the founding of the Friends of the Mindemoya Old School.
The Friends have set up a Facebook page to provide information and garner support for the project.
In a post setting up the page, community activist Jan McQuay noted the years-long struggle to save the historic building and the challenges of working as an informal group. “So the informal group is now a corporation, affiliated with the Ontario Historical Society. The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario is also assisting us and we are grateful to both organizations. Our mission is to relieve the municipality of responsibility for the Mindemoya Old School either through the transfer of ownership or by means of a long-term lease of the structure and appropriate land to the corporation. We intend to restore, sustain, steward, support and manage the building.”
Ms. McQuay said that after the group negotiate an agreement with the municipality, “we expect to begin fundraising for the work that will be needed. We will also seek government grants to refurbish this historic building so we will be actively seeking potential purposes that can be married with grant opportunities. Our first project will be a new roof.”
“Our hope is that, once people are assured that the financial responsibility for repurposing the Old School is in the hands of our corporation, and not the municipality, everyone here will come together to support our goal of once again making the Old School a huge asset for the community, not just for its historical and architectural value, but for its ongoing purposes,” Ms. McQuay added.