Rural halls face uncertainty in time of global pandemic

A meeting will be called late this spring to discuss the future of the Green Bay Hall, pictured above. photo courtesy of Google Street View

Rockville Community Hall calls on MPAC to waive taxes

ROCKVILLE – Last month, Carol Sheppard, who has served as president of the Rockville Community Hall for the past 30 years, wrote a letter to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) in the hope it might reconsider its taxation of community halls, especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes raising money for halls like Rockville’s all the harder.

Ms. Sheppard wrote to MPAC, giving a brief synopsis of the Rockville Hall, which began its life as a church, built in 1928 and opened for worship the following year. The church closed its doors in 1945 and, almost two decades later, reopened in 1963 as the Rockville Hall.

“From 1939 to 2019, there have been funerals, weddings, anniversary gatherings, weekly senior euchre parties and monthly dinners,” Ms. Sheppard writes. “Due to the fact of aging volunteers, the cost of insurance, taxes, maintenance and now COVID, my concern is that we will be forced into closing this building for good.”

“The Manitoulin Island has a small population of 12,000,” she continued. “My plea to MPAC is to consider exempting these small community halls from land tax. Looking forward to hearing from you.”

The three halls located in the Northeast Town, Rockville Hall, Green Bay Hall and Howland Seniors’ Hall in Sheguiandah, are unique on Manitoulin in that the municipality has never owned any of these community centres which were repurposed from previous uses and owned and operated by their respective communities. The halls are the property of the community groups that operate them and, as such, are subject to taxes unlike the other halls on the Island, which are considered municipal assets.

Ms. Sheppard has high praise for her Rockville neighbours and those seasonal residents who have donated funds to the hall since the pandemic’s start. “The summertime people have really stepped up,” she added.

The annual insurance fee for the Rockville Hall runs around $1,200 with taxes adding another $800, Ms. Sheppard explained.

“I don’t know how Green Bay is even managing,” she added. “Our problem is we don’t have a lot of younger people coming to our events. (Before COVID) we had euchre once a week and a pot luck dinner, with a $5 charge, once a month. Between those two events we managed to keep in the black; this year not so much.”

As Ms. Sheppard suspected, Green Bay isn’t doing so well. Jack Ferguson, a trustee of the Green Bay Hall, shared that, like Rockville, the hall wasn’t able to open in 2020 and is therefore suffering the financial consequences.

Mr. Ferguson believes there is enough money in the bank to see them through to July without hosting any of the Friday night euchres that help pay the majority of the expenses.

“This year doesn’t look like we’ll be operating again and our finances our dwindling,” he added. The last tax payment made, in fact, came out of the hall’s reserve fund. 

The Green Bay Hall’s annual operating expenses run at around $1,700 and this includes taxes, insurance and hydro.

A meeting of the Green Bay Hall trustees will likely be called in May, Mr. Ferguson said, to discuss the future of the one-room schoolhouse—where he was a student—turned hall. He admitted that tough decisions may have to be made.

Dale Wood is president of the Howland Seniors’ Hall in Sheguiandah, which has been able to host a few takeout food events in its health unit-sanctioned kitchen since the pandemic began last spring.

The Sheguiandah hall pays close to $3,000 each year between taxes and water and between $1,200 and $1,300 is also required each month to keep the lights on. One small blessing brought by COVID-19, Mr. Wood said, is the reduction in propane and hydro due to the hall not being in use.

Pre-pandemic, the Howland Seniors’ group welcomed a tai chi group twice each week, euchre parties every week, dinners every few months and, their most important money-maker, rentals.

Mr. Wood said he totally agrees with Ms. Sheppard and stands behind her in her attempt to have MPAC reverse its decision to tax community halls. “If we had some assistance on our taxes that would be great—anything would help.”

Ms. Sheppard acknowledged that the MPAC ask might be a long shot, but, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” She has yet to hear back from MPAC, but said she hopes to resume activities at the Rockville Hall as soon as she and her band of volunteers are able. Stay tuned for a potential strawberry social (to be held outdoors) this spring.