Wrecker's Ball Looms Over Alma College

Article from London Free Press, 20 January 2003
By Zulekha Nathoo, special to the Free Press

A St. Thomas landmark may hear its death knell at a city council meeting tonight.

Brian Squires, who owns Alma College, is asking St. Thomas council for the demolition permit to tear down the college and its chapel, said Peter Leack, the city's clerk.

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, Leack said.

Squires wants to add the Alma College site to the city's list of potential sites for a long-term care facility, Valleyview.

But at a closed-session meeting Dec. 2, city council voted that a spot on Burwell Road was the preferred site.

Originally, 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 tried to sell the college a year ago, but can't find a buyer.

"I have to operate by the rules of city council, but their rules keep changing," Squires said.

He claims St. Thomas Mayor Peter Ostojic suggested he supported Squires' bid to demolish the college.

Not true, said Ostojic.

"I told Mr. Squires if the Alma building wasn't currently on the site, it would be an ideal place to build a home," said Ostojic. "But the building is there, so it can't be done."

Ostojic said the city turned down Squires' first proposal because the lot wasn't large enough and seniors wouldn't have a very good view.

Some St. Thomas residents are upset at the possibility the college could be demolished. Past attempts have prompted loud outcries both from the public and the college's alumni which at one point tried to buy the building.

Elgin Historical Society president Jeffrey Booth said the locals have a great love for the building.

"Mr. Squires has proceeded to devastate the landscape around the building," Booth said. "I'm very unhappy about it."

Former St. Thomas mayor Steve Peters agrees the building shouldn't be destroyed.

"It's probably one of the most significant buildings in St. Thomas from a historical and architectural standpoint," said Peters, now MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London.