Alma makes 'endangered' heritage list
Dubious distinction heightens awareness of property’s plight

By Ian McCallum, St. Thomas Times-Journal Staff
Wednesday February 22, 2006

In limbo as city council decides its future, Alma College now finds itself in dubious company with the former school for girls' inclusion in Heritage Canada’s Top 10 Most Endangered list. Released Monday, the 2005 report card takes stock of Canada’s heritage performance and the results point to the federal government’s “failing grade in its overall commitment to heritage conservation.”

After hearing of the historically designated property’s inclusion on the list, Brian Squires, of Alma Heritage Estates, noted, “It takes an army of people doing things to get any movement (on funding opportunities).”

In the meantime, Mayor Jeff Kohler and Elgin-Middlesex-London Liberal MPP Steve Peters are to meet Friday to discuss provincial funding assistance for restoration of the main building that dates back to 1877.

Ten days ago, St. Thomas council directed the city management board to provide more information before it deals with an application to demolish the main building and chapel at Alma College.

Earlier this month, Municipal Heritage Committee chairman Angus Walton recommended the permit request be denied and urged council to take action under Section 35.3 of the Ontario Heritage Act, which prescribes minimum standards for the maintenance of heritage properties. In addition, noted Walton, the city should actively involve the province to take action on preserving and restoring the main building on the 4.4-hectare (10.9-acre) Moore Street property.

“When (city clerk) Wendell Graves and I meet with Steve we’ll specifically be dealing with Alma,” Kohler told the Times-Journal on Tuesday. “We want to get a grip on whether there is any provincial funding available.”

The inclusion of Alma College on the endangered list places it alongside the likes of Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge, the Lister Block in Hamilton, Ont., and Southwest Point lighthouse on Anticosti Island, Que. “The Heritage Canada Foundation’s report card is a wake-up call that brings national attention to destroyed or threatened places in Canada,” explained executive director Natalie Bull. “While it sets some clear priorities for the new government, it’s also about how Canadians can improve the score.” A national, membership-based charitable organization, the Heritage Canada Foundation has a mandate “to preserve and demonstrate and to encourage the preservation and demonstration of the nationally significant historic, architectural, natural and scenic heritage of Canada.”

The immediate priority should be financial assistance from all levels of government, stressed Squires, whose family consortium purchased the property in 1998 with the intent of developing 66 luxury retirement suites. “Nobody seems to know where the funding is, if there is any. There are so many things that can be done at the municipal and provincial level, but it takes an army of people doing things to get any movement.” He said he is frustrated by restrictions resulting from Alma’s designation under the Ontario Heritage Act and encouraged the MHC to play a more active role in its future. “Why can’t these people actually communicate with other groups and find out what resources are available as opposed to everybody running by themselves and getting nothing done?”