With the former Laura Secord Memorial School about to go be put on the market, both the board of Willowbank, its current owner, and town councillors want to be sure the sale is what’s best for both Willowbank and the Queenston community.
It’s been more than a decade since the sound of a school bell or voices of youngsters on the playground at recess could be heard in Queenston, and much about the village has changed since then, including the former elementary school property, which served local youngsters from 1914 until 2010 before becoming the lower campus of the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts.
Willowbank purchased the building in 2012 through a partnership with the town, planning on using it to expand restoration arts classes.
But a decade later, after a thorough analysis and review of the future direction of Willowbank, board vice-chair John Scott says the decision to sell Laura Secord wasn’t difficult at all — it has been “vastly underused” during the last decade, and deserves to be maintained, in good repair, with a role to play that will benefit the community.
Willowbank has shown good stewardship to the property, but that takes a lot of resources, he says.“
There are several remarkable directors still serving on the board from when Laura Secord was purchased, ” and who, over the years, have dedicated their time and personal resources to the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. These respected people are the true “shepherds” of Willowbank without which it would not be in existence.” In the time since, he says, “the school didn’t evolve the way it was expected.”
While some of the space was initially used for classes while the Willowbank building was closed and undergoing restoration, that only lasted about two years.
The restoration work on Willowbank is not complete, and never will be, explains Scott. Instead the building itself will be a classroom that will continue as a “living laboratory” for students to work on, developing their skills of the various eras represented in the Queenston mansion.
He finds it a fascinating concept — one that offers learning opportunities not available anywhere else in Canada — and also a difficult concept “to get your head around” the first time you see it, especially the Bright Room, the main salon that has different walls restored to different eras.
In his time on the board, he has become passionate about the unique educational program Willowbank offers, with hands-on skills for those interested in learning about heritage restoration by using the Willowbank building itself, and because of that direction, the lower campus is no longer needed.
“We’re very conscious of being good citizens of Queenston, and we don’t want it to fall into disrepair,” Scott says. “We want to do what’s right for the community.”
In the years since 2012, a chunk of the Laura Secord property has been severed, divided and sold as three residential lots. That money went to pay off debt and to fund some major renovations to Willowbank, including an elevator and air conditioning system, amongst other projects.
Another section has been developed as a natural park through a public/private partnership with Willowbank, its students involved in the design of the park.
The remaining property that includes the former elementary school is still zoned institutional, says Scott.
The goal of the sale is to maximize the revenue for Willowbank, to be put aside as an investment. Although the board has no intention of trying to “steer its sale,” the goal is to do what will benefit the community, he stresses.
An opportunity to talk to alumni this fall helped convince him the board is moving in the right direction to secure the future of the school of restoration arts. Hearing what they are doing now, and the positive things they had to say about their Willowbank experience, was welome news. “They loved that funky feeling that allows you to work collectively, and to really learn.”
Hopefully, he says of the Laura Secord building, “someone else will do something wonderful with it.”
There are still “two amazing artists” using the upstairs space — they have a one-year lease — “and it would be great if whoever purchases it allows them to stay. That’s a personal point of view,” he says “But we don’t know where it’s going to go.”
Board members have already had six different groups approach them with ideas for different uses. “As soon as we announced we were selling it there were some feelers out, but we don’t know where it will end up.”
They also don’t know what kind of money they are looking at. “Someone will have to give us some perspective on what it would be. Our goal is ‘as much as we can get,’ to retire a small mortgage and have enough funds to invest as an endowment fund for the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts.”
Willowbank, he emphasizes, “is fine. It’s not a sale of financial need. It’s for the long-term. It would be foolhardy to use the money for operations. This is an investment for the long-term education of Willowbank students.”
As a volunteer, Scott, whose love of education led him to the board of Niagara College, which he chaired for a time, and more recently to Willowbank, will be providing the oversight on the sale.
And he is receptive to meeting with councillors, and the community, to discuss the future of the Laura Secord property.
Councillors at Monday’s planning committee meeting had a brief discussion about the sale, with Coun. Erwin Wiens asking that the town approach Willowbank board members to talk about “the spirit” of the 2012 purchase of the elementary school.
His recollection, he said, is that the town facilitated the purchase of Laura Secord from the District School Board of Niagara to preserve it.
The original portion of the school was built in 1914, and was designated a heritage building by the town.
Wiens said his concern is that the property will be purchased by a developer, and a few years down the road will be turned into a subdivision.
“Hopefully someone on the board remembers what the spirit of the purchase was then, and will be amicable to working with us.”
“I understand fair market value,” he continued, “but we (the town) helped them get it, and it would be a shame to lose it,” which is what will happen “if we don’t act now, and act quickly.”
He asked that someone from the town reach out to the Willowbank board, “before they reach out to a real estate agent,” and “facilitate something at that property that will be to everybody’s liking.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she is happy to ask the board members if they will work with the town, “and figure out what will be best for that property.” Staff is already looking at how the town was involved in the sale, she said.
But she cautioned councillors the value of the property makes it unlikely the town would be able to purchase it.
Scott says he welcomes discussions with the town, perhaps another educational facility, or anyone who might have a proposal that would benefit the community.
“It’s good that people are concerned. That’s great. We are too. We’re happy to talk to them.”
Correction: This story has been corrected from the print edition, which incorrectly said there are no Willowbank board members at this time who were on the board when Laura Secord was purchased.