Alma College flap claims Heritage boss

By Randy Richmond, London Free Press

The lengthy fracas over the future of a St. Thomas historic site has claimed the chair of the city's watchdog heritage group and set the stage for a meeting about the group's future tonight. Diana Player, chairperson and six-year veteran of the Municipal Heritage Committee, said yesterday she resigned because council will not back the group's efforts to save 123-year-old Alma College.

"It's just been one thing or another. There are only so many times you can bang your head against the wall."

The new, interim head of the committee, Angus Walton, said the group will meet tonight to determine what to do next. "I want to see what everybody is thinking."

Walton doesn't think other members will resign or vote to disband the committee. "I don't think you give up."

Even so, he sympathized with Player and said he had no idea how the committee was going to get council to follow its wishes on Alma College. "That's a good question. If I had that answer, I would give it to you."

The world-famous private girls' school opened in 1881 and closed in 1994. The building, considered a treasure of Victorian architecture, has been damaged by weather and vandalism.

Owner Brian Squires wants to turn the building into a seniors retirement home. He's been having trouble getting final city approval for the project, but in the meantime, has been removing windows, window frames and some bricks. Squires said yesterday he's been forced to do that work to make the building secure from trespassers and repair sections damaged by the weather.

"Kids were getting into the building. I think it (work) was minor. I wouldn't have been on the job since 1998 if I had intentions of destroying the building."

But the work, which started in winter, alarmed the municipal heritage committee. Committee members urged council in early April to put a stop-work order on the Alma College site. The site is protected under the Ontario Heritage Act. Council agreed to the stop-work order, but didn't send it out after getting legal advice that suggested the work didn't qualify as demolition or construction under the act. Municipal politicians have long complained the act is vague and toothless, and the province itself promised last month to toughen up the act.

In St. Thomas's case, the fire department recently ordered Squires to make the building secure, Mayor Jeff Kohler said. A stop-work order from council would have contradicted the fire department's order, Kohler said.

The mayor agreed the experience has been frustrating for the committee and everyone else. "We're limited to what we can do. The heritage act is very vague."

At a recent meeting between Squires, the heritage group and city officials, Squires addressed the city's concerns, Kohler said. But Player said the meeting was yet another example of the city's unwillingness to support the heritage group. Any alteration of the building without written council approval breaks the heritage act, Player said. "That was kind of the last straw."

Player should have discussed her concerns with him before quitting, Squires said yesterday. "That kind of distresses me."

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