Historic College Sparks Heated Debate

By Hank Daniszewski
January 21, 2003
London Free Press

St. Thomas -- City council delayed a decision on a demolition permit for historic Alma College last night but the issue still sparked a nasty exchange between Mayor Peter Ostojic and the property owner.

Council voted to get a report from the local architectural conservation advisory committee before deciding on a demolition permit requested by developer Brian Squires.

But at the end of the meeting Suires was granted permission to speak. He told council Ostojic suggested to him the site would be suitable for the proposed Valleyview seniors' home if the old building was demolished. Squires even produced a tape recorder and played a tape of a conversation with Ostojic that he said proved his claim.

Squires said that demolition was "the last thing that should happen" to Alma College. But he said he was being made a "scapegoat" and a victim of broken promises. "We have been told so many things since we came here to St. Thomas to save it but the poeple have not come through," said Squires.

Ostojic countered by reading a transcript of a phone message that Squires left at city hall a year ago in which he threatened to take out a demolition permit on the building. He said Squires had done nothing since he bought the property five years ago except to gut the interior and dig up some of the surrounding property.

"The only person to blame for the ruin of Alma College is yourself," he told Squires.

Ostojic estimated restoring the property would cost $10 million but he said council should not get involved in fainancing any restoration.

Alma College, formerly a private girls' school that opened in 1881, was designated a heritage site by the province 10 years ago. The special designation means city councillors must vote on issuing a demolition permit for the building.

Squires wanted to add the Alma College site to the list of potemtial sites for Valleyview. But at a recent closed meeting, council decided a property on Burwell Road was the preferred site.

Squires said when he bought the college in 1998, he wanted to preserve it and build a seniors' facility behind it. But he said the city rejected that proposal and he has no choice but to build from the ground up.

He said efforts to sell the property have failed.

St. Thomas residents are upset at the possiblilty the college could be demolished. Past attempts drew loud outcries from the public and college alumnae, who at one point tried to buy the building.