By: Mike Anderson
While the Georgina Pioneer Village is promoted as a tourist attraction, many of its buildings are in disrepair, and at least one has been officially condemned.
Located adjacent to the Georgina Civic Centre, the ten-acre site is home to 14 historic buildings that date from 1850 to 1920.
The Cedarbrae School, a one-room schoolhouse built in the late 1890s and moved to the site by the Georgina Historical Society in the early 1980s, is literally sinking into the ground. The only thing holding it up is the brick chimney.
The building has been closed to the public since 2017 after an engineering report found that the building was in such bad condition that it could not be salvaged.
The town planed to rebuild the schoolhouse this year. And promised to have the project completed in time for this fall’s Harvest Day Festival in the village.
However, the project hit a major snag this summer when construction bids came in too high. While the town budgeted $200,000 for the rebuild, it wasn’t enough to complete the project.
The town also didn’t set aside monies for a contingency fund — generally considered essential in most heritage property restorations — that could have been used to cover the shortfall.
Now, the town will “park” the project while it applies for grant funding to top up the construction budget, and hopefully, complete the construction in 2020. However, it’s not clear where this grant money is coming from, or when it can be obtained.
This latest setback has members of the Georgina Historical Society worried that the town may never rebuild the schoolhouse — opting to spend the funds on something else.
“We’re disappointed, but not surprised,” says Tom Glover, president of the Georgina Historical Society.
“It’s frustrating when we had consultants and engineers who drew up the rebuild and budgeted that much. We thought it was enough to cover the cost of it.”
He also wonders why the town didn’t apply for a grant before tendering the job.
“It seems to be a little late to be seeking a grant,” says Mr. Glover. “We’re just afraid it’s going to be put off and not be done next year either. And the schoolhouse is a focal point of the village. When people come to a pioneer village with their kids, they like to go see the old school.”
Unfortunately, the schoolhouse is not the only building that requires immediate attention.
The pioneer log cabin lacks a roof and is open to the elements. It will probably have to be torn down soon. Other buildings need new roof shingles, structural repairs, and new foundations. The site itself has inadequate drainage and floods every spring.
Despite the need for extensive repairs, the town’s 2019 budget only allocated $5,000 for building repairs and maintenance, and a further $3,800 for property improvements for the 14-buildings.
“It’s a joke,” says Bob Holden, vice president of the Georgina Historical Society who says he spends more money on his own house.
“I think heritage and preserving our history is pretty low on the town’s scale of things. Just take a look at the budget, and how it’s been allocated. The resources don’t go there. And quite often when they do, they don’t get used up.”
Mr. Holden would like to see the town increase spending for repairs to avoid falling into what he calls a “maintenance deficit.” He argues if the town had spent more in the past, there wouldn’t be a need to rebuild entire structures like the schoolhouse.
One possible solution might be to allow volunteers to do some of the repairs that are necessary to restore and preserve the buildings. However, the town, concerned about liability, currently restricts their efforts to minor landscaping and cleaning up the site.
Mr. Holden calls this is a “red herring,” and says that volunteers are prepared to sign waivers that would indemnify the town. He points to the successful renovation of an old railway caboose at Toronto’s John Street Roundhouse by the Toronto Historical Railway Association — a project that could not have been completed without hundreds of hours of free volunteer labour. “They saved a ton of money,” says Mr. Holden.
This issue will soon come to a head, as the Georgina Historical Society is gearing up to raise funds to restore its own CNR railway caboose that sits on a partial rail line in the village. The town wanted to give the caboose away earlier this year, but society members scuttled that plan.
Despite the challenges facing the village, and some occasional head butting with the town, the society is anxious to work with the municipality to find workable solutions.
Mr. Glover is hopeful that the village can be saved. He plans to invite the mayor and council for a site visit. He wants to show them which buildings require repair, and personally lobby for a more significant repair budget.
“What we have to do is make the town realize how important the village is to the community and there needs to be more funding for the proper maintenance of the buildings,” says Mr. Glover.
“I am optimistic about the future because we have a very enthusiastic group of members and we should be able to work with the Town to improve the village and make it a major tourist attraction for our area.”