St. Thomas Times Journal
By: Freelance writer - Dawson Winchester
February 15, 2003

All of the proposals, counter proposals, claims, counter claims, fabrication and fact of the recent Alma College / city council debate bring to mind some lines from an old Peter Allen song lyric.

Don't throw the past away,
you might need it some rainy day,
Dreams can come true again,
When everything old is new again.
I said, when everything old is new again!

At the risk or disturbing the four readers who were upset when I used the words "soap opera" in referring to the First United Church / Robert Towers brouhaha, I'll cavalierly apply that same descriptive phrase to the sorry saga of Alma College.

It's a sap opera. There's no better way to describe it. The "he said, they said, you said, we said" debate between Alma Heritage Estates president Brian Squires and St. Thomas city council (and administration) rages on. It's a freaking soap opera!

But, need I remind you we've been down this bumpy road before. And if you were really paying attention you will remember that back in 19 and 94 another "saviour" was proclaiming his plan to save Alma College. Back then the goal was not to make it a home for seniors; it was to revive it as an educational facility.

I remember quite well writing a feature article for London Business Magazine titled "From Here to September." It detailed Michael Leahy's plan to resurrect Alma as a private school.

Here are the first three paragraphs of my March 1994 LBM piece:

"The only students at Alma College these days - none of them in residence - are 36 young tykes in nursery school and kindergarten, and another 225 taking lessons in the music school.

"But if the plans of executive director Michael Leahy and the Alma College board of directors are realized, the halls of the historic school will echo once again with the living sounds, chatter and laughter of 140 full-time residential students by September 1994.

"Founded in 1877, Alma College was closed, the result of a bitter strike, after the 1988 school year. The attempt by the Ontario Secondary School Teacher's Federation (OSSTF) to organize faculty began in 1987. The bargaining process was notably unsuccessful. By mid-winter of 1988 violence had erupted on pick lines outside the school as management attempted to keep the college open and functioning. After completion of the 1988 school year, the board of directors decided not to reopen the college."

When I was interviewing Leahy for that LBM article, he said the economic benefits of the hoped for 140 full-time students in residence would be "astounding."

He told me that in the first year of operation the school would pump $1.5 million into the local economy in salaries, utilities, and maintenance. Close to $500,000 more would be spent on food purchases. And he said another "half mil" would be spent locally by students on clothing, entertainment and all manner of other purchases. Total of above: $2.5 million.

"Our plan," said Leahy "was to increase enrollment annually until we reached a maximum of 300 students in five years. We now hope to achieve that goal in three and one-half years."

Since maximum resident capacity was 200, Leahy said, once that point was reached the next 100 students would be billeted in the community in a Homestay Program. With 300 students enrolled, according to Leahy, Alma would be contribution $5 million yearly to the local economy.

The staff of 50 required for 140 students would break down as follows: 16 teachers, 10 residence staff, 10 maintenance, 8 kitchen, and 6 office/administration. At full capacity of 300 students, and additional 20 to 25 staff would be required.

Spearheading the plan for the resurrection of Alma College, along with Leahy, were board member Helen Schram, board chairman, Dr. Norman Pearson, and Stewart Toll, president of a London firm (Exemplary Consultants Ltd.) retained by the Alma board to develop the curriculum.

Despite all the grandiose talk, I found out during the Leahy interview that Canadian banks and trust companies were not willing to bankroll the Alma plan, deeming the risk of failure too high. Alma, at the time, had only a limited line of credit with a St. Thomas branch of a Canadian bank, and was being otherwise support by private mortgage money from private lenders.

Leahy summed up this lack of financial backing thusly: "There is a much better chance of this [Alma reopening] working right now than there is of attracting a large industry to St. Thomas. The plant, in this case, already exists. The product exists. The market exists. But we still have to get from here to September."

At the time I was writing the Alma article for LBM (January 1994), Leahy said they had signed up three students for the planned September 1994 reopening of the school. They had recruited a young man from Russia, a young man from Hong Kong, and a young woman from Japan. I don't think they ever got even remotely close to their stated goal of 140.

So they never got "from here to September." Alma didn't reopen as planned.

Now, here we are in 2003 with Brian Squires in the role of "new saviour of Alma." But, despite an amateurish "letters to the editor" propaganda campaign being waged by his supporters and/or associates, it's still the same old, same old.

Just as in 1994, the promoter bluffs while holding a losing hand. No dough, no show, no go!

One wonders if Squires has approached the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan for financial backing. It was, after all, member of this filthy rich teachers' union (soon to be 58% owners of the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Air Canada Centre) that were instrumental in the 1988 closing of Alma College. Maybe they'll now invest some of their megabucks in a senior's facility on the old Alma Site.

Which brings us back to where we started. Everything old is new again!