In a week filled with grim economic developments, news of Algoma University’s proposal to open up shop in the former Wellington Street Public School is an intriguing scenario.
While it will not be hailed as a significant job generator, the undertaking is notable for nudging the city down the path of diversification.
University president Richard Myers is looking to utilize the city-owned heritage building as a campus offering the first two years of its bachelor of arts program.
The news, emanating from Monday’s city council meeting, did not impress T-J reader Scott Northcott, who wrote a letter to the editor to suggest what is needed at the Wellington Street site is “a specialized program, which develops creativity and innovation with the right mix of theoretical and practical skill and really places St. Thomas as a destination for specialized education.”
It didn’t take long for Northcott’s suggestion to trigger a response from Andrew Gunn, trustee of the Dorothy Palmer estate which will support a significant portion of the project’s capital cost.
In a conversation with this corner, Gunn advised Thursday to wait until the whole picture comes into focus. Several announcements over the coming weeks will solidify the long-term plan, he teased.
“When you see all these things rolled out over the next four or five weeks, you’ll see the whole picture of what I’m trying to do.”
While the announcements don’t directly piggyback on the Algoma University project, they will prove exciting, Gunn assured.
While one is education related, another revelation is geared to downtown development.
To backtrack for a moment, Gunn isn’t squeamish about thinking outside the box. When Alma College was more than an embarrassing rubble of bricks, it was Gunn and Myers (then a professor of political science based in Fredericton, N.B.) who urged city council in 2006 to deny a demolition request by the owners of Alma College and instead consider his group’s ambitious plan for a small, liberal arts university housed at the former school for girls.
” I am completely confident if we are given the opportunity to purchase the property we will make that happen,” Gunn advised City Scope in August, 2006.
Returning to our chat with Gunn, he noted with the financial impetus provided by the Palmer estate (she, by the way, was a life-long Elgin resident who spent much of her life teaching), while he can’t bring jobs to St. Thomas, he is trying “to help give the city a shift in focus and image.”
He continued, “with the Algoma announcement I know one thing we’re going to hear a lot is, ‘what’s the point of arts programming,’ but I think when the other announcement comes in you’ll see the balance. A lot more of the finance and technical side of things.”
While not included in Monday’s announcement, Gunn noted the Palmer estate is going to be donating to Algoma University to help with scholarships and bursaries “so the kids can stay here and do the first two years in St. Thomas.
“And we’ve tried to do this in such a way so the cost to the city is bare minimum and I knew that wasn’t going to happen unless that was the case.”
There you have it. The first turn in what is sure to be an exciting ride unfolding over the next month or so.
STAY THE COURSE
Did you manage to catch Mayor Heather Jackson-Chapman Thursday morning on CBC radio.?
Addressing the closure of Ford’s St. Thomas Assembly Plant, she remarked, “We’re never going to see the big plants again that employ 2,000 at a time with the high-paying jobs we became accustomed to. It’s just the new reality.”
Sadly, those are the facts of life.
However, a faithful T-J reader, Scott, wrote in to implore our mayor to steer clear of fatalism.
“The attitude in these comments is fatalistic and makes me worried about the future of jobs in St. Thomas when our leadership has such a poor attitude,” commented Scott.
“We only have to look 40 minutes down the highway to the Toyota plant in Woodstock to see that, yes, these big plants that employ thousands and pay well are very well still possible. During these tough times it is the role of leadership to be optimistic and get out there and do something good for our community.”
He continued, “It is a tough day for St. Thomas, but the future can be bright if we put no limits to our dreams. If you are already of the opinion that we can’t land a big plant again, then it certainly won’t happen. However if leadership has the attitude that this community has a lot to offer, then anything can happen.
“Please work hard for this community that has put so much trust in you. We need you.”
Sure ties in nicely with the optimism that is a trademark of Andrew Gunn.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“It is a sad, empty feeling to see the plant so empty. I have never seen that before. It was eerie, like a ghost town.”
Retired Ford employee Fred Martellotti on the final day of production Thursday at the St. Thomas Assembly Plant.
City Scope appears every Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow @ianscityscope