Demise of Alma warrants top billing

Alma fire, May 28, 2008

Alma fire, May 28, 2008

With several thousand layoffs and job losses battering the local economy, T-J readers may question last week’s headline announcing the Alma College fire as top news story in 2008.
It wasn’t an easy decision for this paper’s editors and reporters … the disappearance of several thousand jobs in the city would surely qualify as the banner story in any other year.

In fact, it’s a safe bet as the impact of the manufacturing sector implosion fully kicks in over the coming months, the economy will qualify as the top local news generator in 2009.
However the past 12 months have been anything but ordinary in St. Thomas.
On May 28, approaching the noon hour, a signature on the city’s skyline succumbed, literally, in a matter of minutes while hundreds of onlookers gathered to pay tribute.
Alma College, in concert with the railways, put St. Thomas on the map. In fact the former school for girls long outlasted the steam engines that allowed the city to boast it was the Railway Capital of Canada.
Long derelict, Alma nevertheless remained in the headlines.
“The college was more than just a building, because a building that stands for a year is just a building,” writes loyal reader

Lloyd Beeston on this site. “ A building that stands for 130 years, is a landmark and a connection to our past.”
Remarkably, Alma still garners headlines, as witnessed by Wednesday’s front page.
And it will warrant further ink, thanks to the efforts of Suzanne van Bommel and the Alma Advocacy Association which has recently filed a complaint to the city regarding the condition of the Moore Street property.
“Our concerns relate to the buildings and structures remaining at 96 Moore St., and public health and safety hazards,” van Bommel writes in a letter to the city’s chief building official.
A list of six issues includes the state of the chapel, music building and the amphitheatre, among others.
Such passion for a structure that was listed two years ago by the Heritage Canada Foundation as one of Canada’s Top 10 endangered buildings surely warrants top billing as a fitting epitaph for the school to which families from around the world sent their daughters.

Last week in this corner a city works department employee documented the pride she and her fellow workers take in serving their home community.
By way of thanks, she passes along best wishes for the new year with the observation, “I suspect we/you will not be at a loss for topics.”
As we say good riddance to a year that taxed our resources on so many fronts, and with the prospect of further difficult times with each page carefully flipped over in the Scenic Scotland 2009 calendar, a parting thought from our dedicated works employee warrants publication.
“I remember so very clearly many years ago (in my youth) when St. Thomas was facing very critical unemployment and plant closing issues,” she recalls.
“I didn’t think my little town would survive … it did and I have faith it will again. We citizens and community leaders need to remain focused on the important things. We may need to reinvent ourselves, think out of the box and take chances like never before. But above all, remain positive and united.”
With such a wonderful attitude and outlook, have you ever thought of vacating the public works department and running for public office?
On second thought, you are probably of much more value right where you are.

Continuing with the above thought, over the past couple of weeks this corner has reviewed the past year in quotable quotes and predicted what is unlikely to transpire in 2009.
Now, it is time to become interactive with an invitation for readers to contribute their ideas and suggestions to the City Scope think-outside-the-box list designed to brighten the prospects for St. Thomas in these turbulent times.
Let me kick off the proceedings with these challenges.
What this area desperately requires is not a wave of new jobs, but instead an ambitious job strategy that will yield higher-paying employment opportunities for the skilled labour force already in place.
Remember we haven’t just lost workers on the shop floor, we are witnessing the disappearance of the plants and factories themselves.
The city and county have to engage in an economic dialogue to promote this corner of southwestern Ontario in an all-encompassing fashion that includes manufacturing, commercial, institutional, agricultural, technological, educational, artistic and tourism components.
We have to encourage our elected municipal representatives to park their egos and personal agendas outside and climb the steps to city hall prepared to deliver on the campaign promises made more than two years ago.
While you’re at it, commit to memory the words written above by a member of your staff.
And for heaven’s sake, jettison the notion micromanagement is a vital component of your municipal responsibilities.
The floor is now yours. Forward your positive news in 2009 wish list to or post them here.
Keep in mind, to dodge the reporting of negative news or choosing to avoid comment or criticism related to the dithering at city hall, in itself, is not proactive.

“The state of the property is bluntly put; shameful. It is shameful to those who once lived in those beautiful quarters, those who admired it from afar and those who once felt an enormous sense of pride in the unique history of this city.”
Suzanne van Bommel, president of the Alma Advocacy Association, in a deputation to city council on Dec. 15 documents the sad legacy of Alma College.


3 thoughts on “Demise of Alma warrants top billing

  1. Ian,


    First and foremost I would like you and the people of St. Thomas to know that I care passionately about our city. On numerous occasions I have invited city council to dialogue on ideas meant to improve transparency, management and financial accountability concerning local affairs. To-date they have largely fallen on deaf ears.

    To the matter at hand regarding an ambitious job strategy, it should be clear now to one and all that the Mayor/CAO is in over his head. This was made obvious when Cliff Barwick shared with Dan Reith on last month’s Politically Speaking show that the job loss catastrophe had all occurred within a six to eight week window. Where the hell has he been? It’s been ongoing for a year. Last April the job losses started mounting with 280 unemployed from the closing of Therm-O-Disc. The underlying point here is that the same thinking that helped guide us into this mess is not likely to be able to lead us out of it.

    We require a paradigm shift in thinking and leadership to develop and implement an employment strategy for our city. Broad brush we need to critically examine our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT Analysis) to create a framework from which the strategy can be developed by building on strengths, resolving weaknesses, exploiting opportunities and avoiding threats. While this may appear an obvious or simple task, it is critical to the successful development of any strategy. A small task force (maximum 10 people) should be able to develop this in a week with full-time commitment. It is with the strategy that emerges that the next steps; tactical deployment can unfold. Some areas to be considered are renewable energy, biotechnology, pharmaceutical research and development and/or manufacture, and hospitality.

    Short term, there are perhaps some quick wins that can be explored concurrently;
    • Partnerships – determine, in conjunction with federal and provincial legislative representatives sources of available funding to ensure we take full advantage and are dovetailed to those specific areas such as infrastructure, heritage and education
    • Retail – approach Lowes to promote St. Thomas as part of their Canadian/Ontario investment strategy – approach Best Buy to promote St. Thomas as part of their Ontario expansion/relocation strategy – approach Future Shop to promote St. Thomas as part of their Ontario expansion/relocation strategy

    Bill Sandison
    St. Thomas, ON

  2. Bill: The mayor’s comment that these job losses have all transpired in a two-month period go hand in hand with his out-of-touch with reality belief that this economic meltdown is no different than what we’ve experienced in the past … it will all blow over and we’ll all live happily after. As I mentioned Saturday, we’ve lost not only jobs but the plants where those jobs existed. I firmly believe those high-paying auto-related jobs may never return to St. Thomas and Elgin. So where is the economic strategy the city and county should be working on now.
    Did you catch the mayor’s New Year’s address tonight? Devoid of any meaningful content, delivered in a most unenthusiastic fashion and rife with buck-passing. In short, little to instill confidence in the shareholders of St. Thomas … the ratepayers. If this message had been delivered at the annual meeting of a large company the shareholders would be fleeing for the exits.

  3. Ian,

    I caught the New Year’s address by the mayor. Merely hollow words from a hollow man, and there is no fear of the bar being raised while he’s in charge.

    Barwick’s 2009 homily lasted a little over a minute. Apparently that’s all the time he required to outline his vision (or lack thereof) for our city. Barwick rode his hobby horse du jour with a plug for his trip to Japan and backhanded the judicial system which he blames for the Sutherland Press debacle that he foisted on the downtown merchants and residents of our city.

    In the January 2008, Barwick remarked about council’s performance in 2007, “Our accomplishments have been astounding.” I’m not sure if anyone other than him knew what he was referring to. If by astounding, he meant shocking or beyond belief then I’m sure many could relate.

    Cliff and the gang should take a bow for their performance in 2008, it too was astounding.

    In fifteen years, these folks have been unable to put a piss house in a park, so I’m guessing an economic strategy is beyond their capability; it will require a gaggle of consultants and a barrel of money just to get started.

    Bill Sandison
    St. Thomas, ON

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