Letter: Why is council willing to subsidize a $13M proposal but not rec or social activities?

‘The majority of current councillors seem to want the Old School destroyed so badly that they will destroy it…’

To the Expositor:

We have perhaps reached the end of the road for the Mindemoya Old School, a landmark building with a history of serving the community for nearly 100 years. Council is expected to include $150,000 for demolition in its 2020/2021 budget, after a feasibility study failed to come up with a plan to repurpose the building without selling it. A few of us have asked the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario to assess the solid brick and stone building’s importance as an example of period architecture. This was never a consideration in the feasibility study, although it has historical and architectural importance to the community. The assessment may be simply for historical purposes, or it could be the beginning of renewed efforts. 

Efforts to save the Old School began in September 2017, when councillors first recommended demolishing the building. In the six years 2010 to 2015, the Old School had netted a loss of $7,750 per year. Some tenants had moved or closed, and the municipality did not replace them. A consulting report for the municipality concluded that severing the lot for sale as a commercial property was not feasible because the property was too small, being confined by a ballpark and an access easement.

News that council intended to demolish the Old School sparked urgent brainstorming. Mary Lochead stepped up with a presentation on how the building could be useful to the Historical Society and the community. It could hold museum artifacts from all three original townships, art galleries and meeting and conference rooms, offices, fitness and dance classes, music, and social activities. Others also made presentations. At one meeting, 40 people showed up to support the Old School, and there were several letters of support.

In the end, council agreed to create a subcommittee with a mandate to seek out and develop “a financially, and otherwise viable, proposal” for repurposing the building. The Repurposing Committee had five volunteer members: Sam Bondi, Hal Love, Jan McQuay, Joanne Smith, and Ted Williamson, Councillors Linda Farquhar and Alex Baran and the mayor. They divided up the work, looking for ideas, financial assistance, grant programs and business possibilities, contacting groups and individuals, our MP and MPP, seniors centres in Ontario, granting agencies and others who might provide advice.

Manitoulin Transport stepped up with an offer of up to $50,000 over several years. Andrea Tann, an interior designer who grew up in Mindemoya, created architectural drawings for the committee pro bono.

We did a seniors’ survey. More than half of respondents were interested in groups and clubs, games and movies, yoga and low-impact fitness. About half expressed interest in textiles, woodworking and painting, and a variety of other arts and crafts. There was significant interest in a book club, computer club and genealogy, balance classes and dancing, lunches, respite and health issues. The survey demonstrated the need for more activities for seniors in the community.

We needed to find grants to assess the retrofits that would be needed and to find a viable purpose. Most are narrowly defined. The Trillium Foundation has various programs but the deadlines and other restrictions were discouraging. The Legacy Fund from Heritage Canada provides funds for cultural and historical proposals, not social or community-building projects. The Central Manitoulin Historical Society is a cultural organization but certainly could not sustain a museum and arts centre without municipal subsidies.

NOHFC (Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation) focuses on encouraging partnerships that provide jobs, but not offices, individual businesses, art, cultural or recreational centres.

The most likely source of funding for a feasibility study appeared to be FedNor, which supports business expansion and start-ups. Non-profit multi-use facilities are not eligible for funding. Council voted to apply for a FedNor grant in March 2018, launching a process that took almost a year before their application was approved. Tulloch was hired to do the study and estimated the cost to retrofit the Old School at $1,115,000, not including leasehold improvements which, if added in, would make the total $2,135,000. This is a significant amount, but it compared favourably with the cost of constructing a new building of similar size at $2,415,000.

Meanwhile, on March 14 council surprised everyone by approving a separate project, the development of a proposal for a multi-use complex which included many of the social, cultural and recreational uses we had explored for the Old School.

Axiom conducted a new survey, stipulating that the building could not compete with existing businesses in Mindemoya. Of those who would use the Old School, 83 percent said they would use it for social gatherings, 75 percent for workshops and half for training. A fitness centre could generate enough revenue to greatly offset the costs of the multi-use part of the building, but there are already fitness centres in Mindemoya. Two respondents expressed interest in starting up art gallery businesses. Others expressed interest in starting assisted home living with meals, a mental health and addiction rehabilitation centre and child care.

In early September 2019 I became aware of a new Canada Infrastructure Grant program, a joint provincial and federal grant program of more than $30 billion with a Community, Culture and Recreation stream. The deadline was November 12, but it looked like the Old School could qualify with a combination of social and cultural uses! Then it turned out that the municipality had known about the grant since August, and had not told us. Instead, they hired Tulloch Engineering at a cost of $50,000 to develop an application for a multi-complex recreation centre which would take the place of the municipality’s two arenas and repurpose the existing Community Hall.

The same month, Tulloch recommended destroying the building. They figured if the municipality assumed all the non-leasehold retrofits, they would have to lease the building out at $115,450 per year, nearly three times the annual costs of the building in the six years prior to its closure! But they found no tenants.

The committee was due to dissolve as of November 30, 2019 but volunteer Lynn Quesnel organized an online survey which garnered support from over 900 people in just a few days. Although time was short, we asked the municipality to apply for the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program for the Old School, and requested an extension past November. Island businessman Mr. Doug Smith offered to pay for a new roof.

Joanne Smith made the case to extend our mandate for five years and to include the Old School in the multi-complex recreation proposal. Both requests were rejected. In a recorded vote, Councillors Linda Farquhar and Al Tribenivicius voted for the extension, but Councillors Derek Stephens, Johnston and Scott voted against. Councillor Shaffer, who had taken the place of Councillor Baran on the committee, cast the fourth and deciding vote to terminate the committee.

Our committee held its final meeting on November 28, 2019, two days before being dissolved. We passed the following motion: “Whereas the Old School does not appear to be impinging on the proposed new complex, Whereas leaving the Old School as is creates no undue burden on taxpayer, and whereas leaving the Old School as is would not hinder plans for the proposed new complex, Be it resolved that the Mindemoya Old School Repurposing Committee requests that council leave the Old School building standing as is until such time as a valid need to demolish the Old School is demonstrated.” The rationale was that a delay will give other organizations and interested parties an opportunity to explore other avenues to enable refurbishing and revitalizing the Old School. The Finance and Economic Development Committee rejected our motion, so it did not proceed to council.

Circumstances have changed in the past two years. It appears the council plans to demolish the arena and move the ballpark elsewhere to make room for a new multi-complex with the proposed new NHL-sized arena attached to the Community Centre. So they want the Old School to be levelled for nothing more than parking spaces, not for a new building. However, with the old arena gone, the Old School could be severed with a larger lot, and sold. By destroying the Old School before they know about the Canada Infrastructure Program grant, they are closing the door to selling it. Destroying a solid building is such a waste. The majority of current councillors seem to want the Old School destroyed so badly that they will destroy it, whether or not a grant for the new multi-complex comes through.

Even with a grant, a multi-complex recreation facility will require an increase in taxes. The Old School Repurposing Committee was charged with ensuring the Old School could pay for itself through revenue generation, but the same rules don’t apply to the proposed multi-complex. Why? Why are our councillors, who weren’t willing to spend a penny for community recreational and social activities in the Old School, apparently willing to subsidize a $13 million proposal?

Jan McQuay