Supporters of Big Lake School implore council to refrain from selling historic schoolhouse

CENTRAL MANITOULIN – One by one, speakers representing members of Big Lake and the Big Lake Community Association (BLCA) implored Central Manitoulin council members to not close down or sell the Big Lake Schoolhouse/Community Hall during an April 26 town hall meeting. The town hall was held to discuss the future of the school as a municipal asset. 

“We don’t want to lose our space,” stated Sue Middaugh. “We don’t want the schoolhouse to end up being someone’s camp. You can’t put a dollar value on history and we need to keep our heritage.”

Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens welcomed everyone to the public Zoom meeting, saying he was looking forward to learning from participants. He noted the municipality has a large number of assets, particularly buildings, before reminiscing about all the schools in the community and how they have all been handled differently. Three schools in Campbell (Perivale, Britainville and Grimesthorpe) were sold to private owners after closure, as were schools in Carnarvon, Providence Bay and a one room schoolhouse on Government Road. “All disappeared or were sold to the private sector,” he said. “Councils of the day accepted Sandfield and Big Lake schools as municipal assets and they’re still there.” 

He noted the municipality needs to be looking at alternative uses that are more substantive.

Jeannine Desmarais, president of BLCA, said the association is still functioning, with nine main new members ready to be active when the pandemic is over. BLCA currently has six members and plans to return to full fundraising once the pandemic is done, she said. The group also provides funding support to various groups and activities such as the Mindemoya Hospital Auxiliary, Manitoulin Secondary School student bursaries and has helped businesses in the past. They have provided many opportunities for students to earn the volunteer hours required to graduate. 

There are more than enough members to handle all the association’s plans, said Ms. Desmarais. There is additional support from 30 to 40 volunteers that help out for different events.

Mayor Stephens reviewed a summary of ongoing costs related to the building. “Insurance was $6,100 this year (shared with Sandfield Schoolhouse) and there are over $500 in monthly expenses the municipality has to cover. Supplies were $300 for the year. The big cost is the structural changes needed for roofing and air quality. It will cost $3,500 to $4,000 to have an assessment of the roof structure carried out and $4,000 of air quality testing needs to be done.” 

He suggested BLCA consider sharing the schoolhouse in Sandfield with the Merry Makers of Sandfield. “A consolidated effort may be better than going with two different levels,” Mayor Stephens said.

There had been discussions with the Merry Makers, Ms. Desmarais replied. “There wouldn’t be enough parking and not enough room to eat for some of our events. It wouldn’t work for us.”

Alison McAllister is a member of the Friends of the Mindemoya Old School group, which has taken an interest in the Big Lake School that will soon be 100 years old. She pointed out the BLCA has a lease agreement with the municipality until 2035. “Since 1985 the association has put a lot of time, effort and fundraising dollars to carry out renovations and other things. COVID has been brutal for fundraising efforts and membership drives,” she said. “As an alternative to destroying the efforts of BLCA, the municipality should not lay waste to these efforts or the history of the building. It is a place to gather for community members. It’s part of the past, present and future and we feel it should be offered to the association for the reasonable amount of one dollar.”

Aaron Quesnel visits the school every year. “It’s a good spot for a venue and I’ve seen improvements over the years,” he said. He asked council what were the ramifications of the existing lease should the building be sold and whether there were already interested parties.

“This has all just come to a head,” answered Mayor Stephens. “The association seemed to lack members. They continue to manage the facility but it has been found to be in need of some fairly extensive repairs.” There is a question whether council has a big enough mandate to continue and the best business move might be to move the property into private instead of public ownership, he said, pointing out the lease has been in place for a number of years with conditions attached and could be up for negotiations. “Nothing is cast in stone for the lease agreement,” he said.

Councillor Dale Scott asked how much had been raised by the BLCA in 2018 and 2019; however, BLCA member Lois Keller wasn’t able to provide numbers at the meeting. “The notice we received only had to do with the status of the school building,” she said.

Councillor Scott requested that Ms. Kellar send him the information. “About $12,000 is needed to pay engineers for a study before work can be carried out on the building,” he told the meeting. “Maybe $25,000 more is needed for repairs to ventilation and the roof. The municipality covers insurance and snow removal and the association covers heat, hydro and maintenance. I have some concerns, which is why I’d like to see a fundraising amount.” 

“The problem is the building needs a lot of work and the municipality is responsible for those costs,” Mr. Scott said. “Is the BLCA interested in taking over the Big Lake Schoolhouse? I was under the impression that you are not able to take on those costs.”

Councillor Steve Shaffer suggested three options which included the municipality paying all capital costs, the association absorbing some capital costs, or the municipality turning the property over to the BLCA. Association members argued they were put on the spot with the options and had not been provided with the information summary prepared by Patricia Mader, municipal co-ordinator, prior to the town hall meeting. 

A market value appraisal was prepared by Hal Love Real Estate Advisory Services in March. According to the report, the building has a current market value of $100,000 to $120,000. An appraisal would be required should the municipality decide to sell the building. 

No decisions were made at the town hall. Mayor Stephens concluded the meeting by saying, “This was a lively, interesting discussion. I am a strong believer in history and heritage. We’ve still got time to review comments. We’ll take this back and make a decision on next steps needed and next discussions with the group. I agree we need to work together to solve the issue.”