City abdicates heritage responsibilities

Ian McCallum

Ian McCallum

Nearly seven months after it succumbed to fire, Alma College is still in the headlines for the negligent fashion in which the owners, city and province deal with this heritage property.
In a presentation to council Monday, Suzanne van Bommel, president of the Alma Advocacy Association, called on the city to enforce minimum property standards, an action it could have pursued several years ago, but instead the municipality chose to abdicate on its heritage responsibilities.
“Nothing has changed at the site since the day of the fire,” advised van Bommel.
“It is imperative that what remains of the property, the site, the buildings and geographical structures be protected immediately.”
Not one to sidestep the obvious comparison, van Bommel suggested, “Surely if the city were to put a fraction of effort into the preservation and protection of 96 Moore St., than they have put into the destruction of the Sutherland Press building, we would not be where we are today.”
The fate/neglect of Alma has been the hottest topic at the City Scope blog site and we present a sample of comments from the past week.
“I hope the residents will rally once more, because we need to draw on our strengths here in St. Thomas and there are10 acres just sitting and waiting to be re-discovered,” writes St. Thomas resident William T. Snow.
“St.Thomas city council needs the financial assistance of both levels of government if they are expected to protect historic buildings,” adds David Belkin of London, Ont.
“However we can’t give the mayor and city council a pass for not enforcing the existing laws, which ensure basic maintenance, and from all accounts, this did not occur at Alma College for many years.”
“ We are losing historical buildings at an alarming rate,” warns Michael Quartz of Toronto. “And our minister of culture, just signs on the dotted line, allowing our heritage to disappear. I would hope that at some point in time, Premier McGuinty will realize (culture minister) Aileen Carroll has been badly neglecting her duties, and replace her.”
And finally, Lloyd Beeston, who splits his time between St. Thomas and Miami, observes, “It’s amazing that 130 years later, Alma is still in the headlines, just a sign of how very special the college was.”

The financial health of St. Thomas is significantly poorer than the majority of communities in Ontario according to the results of a study conducted by the province and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO).
The overall composite indicator of municipal fiscal health is rated at 7, with 1 indicating a healthy picture and 10 a warning of pool fiscal health.
This is not the news members of council and city staff need to hear as they tackle a difficult budget process for 2009 and some nightmarish decisions needed in 2010 – a municipal election year.
If it is any consolation, St. Thomas ranks ahead of London which comes in with an ailing score of 8.
With a composite financial health indicator of 9, Aylmer is on the critical list in Elgin county. Elsewhere around the county, Southwold leads the health parade with a score of 4 while Bayham and West Elgin check in at 5 and Central Elgin, Dutton/Dunwich and Malahide merit scores of 6.
The full report is available on the AMO website at AMO

Reader Bill Sandison submits the following observation for us to ponder.
“Prior to the (Alma) fire, council voted to demolish Alma College. Who would have arranged for that clean-up?
“Mayor Barwick’s legacy and leadership can be drawn from Moore Street, where we have scorched earth at one end (the remains of Alma) and a caved-in parking lot (the Sutherland Press building) at the other.
“If there is one thing that Mayor Barwick never runs out of, it is excuses for why things don’t get done in our city.”

As has been the custom over the past three holiday seasons, this corner would love to pass along appropriate gifts to loyal readers.
Material goods are so quickly taken for granted or fall out of favour, so we put together this gift list as our wish to you for a very Merry Christmas.
To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.
And to all faithful City Scope readers and visitors to the blog site, especially those with birthdays at this hectic time of year when their special day too often is lost in the hustle and bustle of the season – may this Christmas bring you peace, health and happiness.

“Heritage is a provincial responsibility and it’s about time the provincial government, after the episode of Alma College, threw the switch to the ‘On’ position with regard to heritage and step to the plate. The city does not have any money to protect buildings, we don’t have the funds.”
In a recent television interview, Mayor Cliff Barwick stressed it is up to the province to protect heritage buildings like Alma College, This in spite of the fact the city designated Alma as a heritage property and continues to afford this status with sites like Pinafore and Waterworks parks.

City Scope appears every Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be e-mailed to:

6 thoughts on “City abdicates heritage responsibilities

  1. Excellent column!! We need to keep the Alma property in the headlines.I was “googling” earlier today and found alot of activity on the internet,with regards to the college.I’m thrilled so many people from around the globe have taken up the cause.When I would drive into St.Thomas,from London,I would make it a point to drive past the college,and today it seems so strange to see empty space,where Alma stood gracefully for so many years.I applaud all those people who took it upon themselves,to keep Alma on the front pages,Ian McCallum included.It’s inspiring to say the least to know,so many people feel as I do,and I know I speak for many residents from St.Thomas,and abroad when I say,we need to find a productive use for 96 Moore Street,and the sooner the better.
    Happy Holidays.

    David Belkin

  2. I hope we can do something to save the property.At my high school we gathered over 150 signatures for the college back in April.We all worked hard to try and save Alma, and we should never think of giving up.So many students in my school wanted to see the college fixed up,and if the fire had not happened,I think right now we would be seeing them fix it.I was only inside one time,and remember the hallways being so long,and their were so many stairs,that I had to rest when I finally got to the top.The owner didnt take care of the building,and many things were missing,like doors,windows and even some of the railing were gone.At my school we even started letter writing to the premier,asking him to help us save Alma.Some of us did get a response,but it was just to say thank you for writing,we really felt he was ignoring us and Alma.I would be happy to help again any way I can,and I’m glad that everyone didnt forget about the property,because the college is gone,but the feelings are still there.

    Tiffany Austin

  3. How great would it be to see the college property brought back exactly as it was,when it was a working school.I’ve read alot about the school on line,and it was a huge part of St.thomas,so it’s only right we do something to keep the memory alive.Alma College is still a part of St.Thomas,we just need to re-build and continue from here.I hope the Alma Advocacy Association keeps up the fight to protect what remains,because they have the residents of St.Thomas on their side.We can’t change the past,but we can make sure the future includes the chapel,the music building,the amphi-theatre and hopefully a re-built Alma College.Now that would be a great way to start 2009.

    Paul Pacheco
    City of St.Thomas,Ontario

  4. My wife and I were very pleased to have our name mentioned in the city scope column.Alma College was very special to both of us.We would walk past the college on our walks,during our summers in St.Thomas,and we were so sad when we arrived this past summer,and the college was no longer standing.The college was more than just a building,because a building that stands for a year,is just a building,a building that stands for 130 years,is a landmark,and a connection to our past.The countless people who have walked and drove through those huge granite and rot iron gates,are the people who made the college the sacred place it is today.We need to create a plan that includes the remaining buildings,the amphi-theatre,and if possible build a structure that closely resembles the original building.If the property is simply stripped of any remnants of Alma College,then it would be a very sad day for St.Thomas,Ontario.Thanks to the St.Thomas Times-Journal for keeping Alma’s memory alive,and we look forward to seeing the property re-born.All the best to everyone in St.Thomas,during the holiday season.

    Lloyd Beeston

  5. How thrilling to see so much support for our beloved Alma College. To keep Alma alive in the press is not an easy task. Special thanks to Ian for this blog. It will take many ambitious people to repair the damage that has been done at 96 Moore Street. The Alma property is still Municipally designated, we must encourage our Council members to never remove the designation. The Alma Advocacy Association have requested that Minimum Property Standards be enforced to secure the Chapel and the property. I would personally tarp the Chapel myself if necessary. We have heard so many times that the City can not afford to spend money at 96 Moore Street. The fact is the property owners would be billed for any money spent by the Municipality at the site. May 28th, 2008 is the day Alma burned, it is also the day that my life changed forever. Alma taught me so many lessons. Alma should be used as an example of how to never treat a building of such significance. Letter writing campaigns to the City and the Minister of Culture have been fruitless. Do we give up? No! I look forward to reading your comments.
    Dawn Doty
    Secretary, Alma Advocacy Association
    Alma’s neighbour for 26 years

  6. One of my favourite authors is Antoine de Saint-Exupery (who wrote The Little Prince) and he noted, “A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance.”
    You can easily add buildings like Alma to his notation of “a heritage of beliefs, customs and knowledge” and therefore realize the true significance of the Moore Street property.


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