Heritage Act fails Alma College

By Ian McCallum

Ian McCallum's City Scope
St. Thomas Times-Journal
Saturday March 19, 2005

We can’t help but wonder if the Municipal Heritage Committee and city officials had attempted to work hand in hand with the owners of Alma College instead of erecting one roadblock after another, the former school for girls might once again become a viable and vibrant landmark in the community.

This corner is puzzled at the former committee chairman’s motive in citing violations of the Ontario Heritage Act while threatening to slap a stop work order on Alma Heritage Estates when Brian Squires and the Zubick family were simply attempting to clean up and secure the property which has been prone to vandalism for years.

However, we suspect the end of the line for Alma College was inevitable after Squires threw up his hands in frustration at the prospect of dealing with proposed changes to the Ontario Heritage Act.

London developer Shmuel Farhi, owner of numerous heritage buildings including the Elgin County Courthouse, fears the amendments “will give municipalities the power to designate buildings against the wishes of the landlord, prevent demolition and force landlords to maintain facilities to standards set by the government and heritage conservation groups.” Farhi adds “I fail to see how the Government of Ontario can legally force landlords to maintain buildings that may be standing empty and generating no income.”

He specifically refers to the on-going saga of Alma College. “Is the government really prepared to take over dilapidated buildings (such as St. Thomas’ beautiful and crumbling Alma College) and restore and maintain them at taxpayers’ expense?” Instead of threatening to punish the owners of heritage properties, Farhi argues the province should offer heritage landlords financial incentives -- either in the form of tax breaks, loans or special grants -- to encourage the retrofitting and restoration of culturally significant properties.

For the time being, however, the MHC in St. Thomas has prevailed in its role as the conscience of council with regards to heritage. Members can rest easy in the knowledge Squires has succumbed to a system that currently offers little incentive to those with vision.

No longer can the Zubick family be accused of removing or damaging the windows, frames and sundry other items in the main building. That will now be the sole domain of the elements and vandals.