Time for Alma

By Ian McCallum, St. Thomas Times-Journal Staff
Thursday March 16, 2006

After enduring years of demolition by neglect, Alma College now finds itself the centre of attention on several fronts. One month ago, the former private school for girls earned the dubious distinction of inclusion on the Heritage Canada Foundation Top 10 list of endangered places in Canada. Several days later, culture minister Madeleine Meilleur indicated the province will evaluate the landmark to determine its heritage value. And Monday, city council agreed to a 60-day extension relating to an application by owners Alma Heritage Estates to demolish the main building and chapel on the Moore Street property.

In addition, council appointed Ald. Marie Turvey and Ald. Bill Aarts to an Alma College working group that will include representatives from Alma Heritage Estates, the Ministry of Culture, the Ontario Heritage Trust and Angus Walton, chairman of the city’s Municipal Heritage Committee. Walton and Jill Zubick, of Alma Heritage Estates, agreed the extension and establishment of a working group are a “positive” move.

“The city asked us if we would give them a 60-day extension,” explained Zubick, “and we're going to sit down and talk. We'll look at all the options we can. This is very positive.”

Walton is certain the extension to the original March 23 demolition permit deadline is a first under the Ontario Heritage Act. “It's a very positive move. Alma College is unique under the act. None of us know where we're going because none of us have been there before.” Walton indicated the working group will likely hold its initial meeting some time next week.

“I've always said we need to work together and this is the first time where we're actually doing that,” noted Zubick. “None of us can do it alone but together we can.”

In the meantime, Ald. Heather Jackson-Chapman has received support from council in her bid to direct staff to develop minimum property maintenance standards for heritage properties in consultation with provincial officials. And in a letter to Scott Valens, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, Meilleur noted she is asking the Ontario Heritage Trust “to review and evaluate Alma College to determine if it is of cultural heritage value or interest of provincial significance and to provide its recommendation to me.”

Under the Heritage Act, noted Meilleur, the city now has “the tools council needs to stop the demolition of designated heritage buildings such as Alma College” including maintenance standards.

“I would urge the city and the owners of the property to work together to find a solution that would save Alma College and give it new life in the community.”