Rescue mission: Fighting to save historical buildings in rural Ontario

Smaller communities prize their architectural heritage, but honouring it can come at a cost
By Mary Baxter - Published on Nov 02, 2017
Built in 1872 and recently renovated, the Imperial Hotel in New Hamburg, Ontario is now home to apartments and retail space. (



​LONDON — The Erie Street United Church in Ridgetown, a small community in Chatham-Kent, was the first to go. After standing for 133 years, the church was demolished in 2010 when its congregation moved to another building. 

A year later, the Highgate United Church, 10 kilometres to the east, shut down as well — a casualty of a dwindling congregation and escalating operating costs. This time, though, local residents were prepared.

Even before the church closed, they’d formed a committee and drafted a business plan: they were able to buy the building, erected in 1917, for $5,000. They obtained heritage designation and later that year launched The Mary Webb Centre — a concert hall, community centre, and art gallery.

Finding new uses for old buildings is a well-recognized strategy for community revitalization. As the argument goes, architectural renewal hooks tourist dollars, revives tired main streets, creates jobs, increases property values and promotes sustainability. “Heritage conservation is, in fact, a form of community economic development,” explains a provincial government guide on how to restore and conserve old buildings.

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Success stories line Ontario’s urban and rural roads. Take, for example, Toronto’s Distillery District, which has been transformed into a thriving neighbourhood and tourism destination. In New Hamburg (west of Kitchener), the former Imperial Hotel became home to seniors housing and retail space — this year, it won the Architecture Conservancy of Ontario’s award for small-scale restoration.

Yet, as indicated in a 2014 report by a master’s student in Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning, big challenges often overshadow high hopes for heritage building redevelopment. And, as some redevelopment projects in southwestern Ontario reflect, the margin between success and failure can be very narrow indeed — especially in rural areas.

One of the biggest surprises for the volunteer board that adapted Highgate church was the amount of money it would take to keep the building open to the public, says Sandra Kearney, chair of The Mary Webb Centre’s board. The old church needed a new roof, rewiring, and updated plumbing. It fell woefully short of fire codes and accessibility requirements.

So far, they’ve spent approximately $600,000 on repairs and upgrades, including an as-yet-unfinished 2,200-square-foot addition that will provide accessible access and washrooms. Kearney estimates that the rest of the project will cost between $200,000 and $275,000.

They get funding from various sources: They’ve obtained government and foundation grants. They collect donations. The facility brings in money, too. In 2016, according to documents filed with the Canada Revenue Agency, it generated $100,000 in revenue, more than three-quarters of which came from goods and services, such as memberships, donations for the use of the hall, ticket sales for a monthly concert series, and commissions on art sold through the basement gallery. (The remainder came from gifts and fundraising.)

The problem is that the money these volunteers are able to raise is not enough to cover the improvements, operating expenses, and costs —advertising and performer fees, for example — related to revenue generation.

Twenty-six kilometres east, in West Lorne, Elgin County, money woes appear to worry another building revitalization project nearly a decade after its launch.

Launched in 2010, and under development for roughly two years before that, the Arts and Cookery Bank has served as both a community centre and local tourism attraction. The facility is made up of a former bank building (built in 1914), acquired from the local municipality in 2009 for $2, and a timber-frame barn, which was constructed in 1883 and relocated from an area farm.

The facility has been shaped by volunteer power, in-kind donations, municipal grants, and community support, says Grace McGartland, a director on the Arts and Cookery board. Roughly 100 volunteers now help the centre host photography exhibitions, monthly themed community dinners, cooking lessons, community meetings, and corporate retreats.

But the facility that earned a local Architectural Conservancy of Ontario award for adaptive reuse in 2013 is now up for sale. McGartland says the board put it on the market in early summer — it’s listed at $750,000.

“We’re trying to leverage the building asset, and that’s been a decision we’ve worked on for a number of months,” McGartland says when asked why the facility is being sold. She declined to discuss the operating budget, other than to confirm that the centre currently does not receive government grants. Documents filed with the CRA show that revenues plummeted from more than $250,000 in 2012 to less than $46,000 in 2016. Expenditures in 2016 were just under $100,000. Property documents show that in 2015, the non-profit that owns the facility obtained a $525,000 mortgage for the building.

McGartland also declined to discuss how the board planned to allocate money from the sale. “We don’t know what the answer is going to be for the future, but we have a terrific asset there, and so we’re trying to make some good decisions around how to leverage that asset and what else we can do to help the community, because, in fact, we’ve been a big help to the community in the past,” she says.


Kearney similarly describes The Mary Webb Centre as a community success. Roughly 50 area artists display work in the gallery at any given time, and the once-weekly open studio and art class sees about 15 participants. The monthly concert series draws people from as far away as Windsor and the United States. These and other events boost chances for local businesses and community groups to earn money, too. Before one concert scheduled in November, for instance, a church group will be hosting a fundraising dinner.

The role the centre plays in the community is especially critical given the uncertain future of other local services: Kearney says that the library, which a few years ago residents rallied to save, is once again facing closure. She fears local schools could be next. “That’s why communities die,” she says.

Over the years, the Ontario government has introduced legislation geared to protect older buildings, most notably in 2005 amendments to the Ontario Heritage Act that provided municipalities with stronger powers to prevent demolition of designated heritage buildings. There’s fierce debate about whether the efforts go far enough. Sometimes older buildings, though, may be difficult, if not impossible, to save.

Punkuj Chawla thought he’d figured out how to generate a sustainable income from the former London elementary school he’d bought in 2015. He envisioned a new multi-disciplinary medical facility for the growing Lambeth community — and the M.B. McEachren Public School, which closed in 2010, seemed ideal for his purposes. He knew the building needed work, including asbestos abatement, but says preservation was his initial goal.

Then, in the spring of 2016, he discovered the building had an extensive mould problem, the result of a leaky roof. Mould can be difficult to completely eradicate, so he decided he would have to demolish the building. But when he applied for a demolition permit, he learned the city intended to designate the old school as a heritage building.

Many local residents supported Chawla’s demolition proposal. He appealed the designation to the provincial Conservation Review Board, which determined the school did not meet heritage criteria. Earlier this year, city council ignored the board’s decision and designated the school anyway.

Chawla says the designation has at the very least doubled his construction costs. He’s trying to find out whether it applies to the whole property or just to the building’s front facade, which was built in 1925, but he confirms that the project will go ahead in the spring. Funds may be available through the city’s heritage program.

In Blyth — a community about 100 kilometres north of London — those behind the development of the Canadian Rural Centre of Creativity also discovered that building new was the better option: the former elementary school that had been their chosen site turned out to be beyond repair.

The primary problems with the nearly 60-year-old facility were mould and a lack of insulation, says Peter Smith, project director of Blyth Arts & Cultural Initiative 14/19, the centre’s fundraising campaign. 

The school had been a major hub in the tiny community of 1,000, and the decision to demolish it was difficult and emotional, he says. To help the community come to terms with the loss, Blyth 14/19 opened the building to visitors one last time before it came down earlier this year.

“People came in and they touched the walls and they told stories,” Smith says. “It was sad in some ways; it was also beautiful that there was an opportunity to say goodbye to a place that had invested so much energy and imagination into [the community].”

The goal is to finish the new building by 2019. The project is part of a larger coordinated effort to create a local cultural sector. 

Many rural communities are working toward similar goals, and they’re trying to figure out how to make old buildings work for them, says Smith. But to remain relevant, physical infrastructure has to lead to something social. “It’s about what happens inside those places,” he says. “Too often, we invest in physical infrastructure, and the whole plan falls apart soon after, because there’s been no thought toward, well, why actually are we doing this — what is the plan beyond next year?”

He recently visited a town in Alberta where millions had been spent to recreate the downtown of the 1920s, with the goal of creating a tourist attraction. But did people want a 1920s-inspired tourist destination? “It shut down,” he says. “Nobody came.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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