By Richard Bell
More than 80 people showed up at the Old School Gathering Place on January 18 for a meeting to bring the community together to launch community-based planning for the future of the Eastern Shore District High School building and to learn about all the exciting projects already in the works. Central Nova MP and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, MLA Kent Smith, and HRM Councillor David Hendsbee were all in attendance to listen and learn from the group.
The call for this meeting emerged from discussions among several local nonprofits: the Railway Chamber of Commerce & Civic Affairs, and this newspaper.
“We started talking about bringing the community together to get ahead of the curve in planning for the future of the old high school building,” said Karen Bradley, co-chair of the Old School. “With construction of a new building now underway in the industrial park, we realized that the old school could be a tremendous community asset. The province’s evaluations said it’s a sound building. You couldn’t build a similar building for less than $30 million or more. But unless the community gets organized, who knows what the province might do with the building? In one of the school site studies, there was even an estimate for tearing it down!”
Larry Wartman, chair of the Musquodoboit Chamber, explained how the groups had come together. “We started talking because we knew we were all dealing with the same set of problems, from maintaining our buildings to getting enough volunteers to chasing after one grant after another,” Wartman said. “We decided that instead of competing, we needed to join forces and find ways to cooperate and support each other. And we were all concerned about the future of the school.”
The meeting started with presentations from the organizers, several other nonprofits, and developer John Wesley Chisholm. The room then turned to a small group brainstorming session to gather ideas about what kinds of functions and activities people would like to locate at the repurposed high school building, with each small group writing down ideas, and then reporting to the whole room.
The brainstorming sessions gave people a chance to lay out a wide range of ideas for improving community life, at least some of which could be located elsewhere. Of the categories that follow, people listed education and recreational uses most frequently. There was also broad agreement that the building could house several functions, rather than being restricted to only one use.
Educational activities. NSCC and GED courses, adult learning, youth skills, trade skills, and a day care centre.
Recreational activities. A gym/fitness centre, skate park, basketball, pickleball, swimming pool, sports hall of fame, and a dog park.
Arts and cultural programming. A film and media studio was popular, followed by an art gallery, theatre space, craft market and craft maker spaces, a music studio, and art classes.
Housing. Affordable and seniors’ apartments, emergency shelter space, student and intern living spaces, and supportive housing for people with cognitive and physical challenges.
Health care. People noted the closeness to the hospital, with suggestions for medical offices, dental offices, physio clinics, an adult day clinic, mental health and addictions treatment, and emergency shelter.
Office Space. Small office spaces for nonprofits and/or for-profit businesses, an incubator mall, business support services, community meeting space, and a café.
Food security. A community garden, commercial kitchen, food bank, Meals on Wheels program, food workshops, and a bakery.
Environmental concerns. Green the building for all future uses, work with the Deanery on sustainable practices, develop gardens and walkways, bring Metro Transit to the Harbour.
What’s Going on Now?
Before the high-school brainstorming session, the organizing groups, several other nonprofits, and developer John Wesley Chisholm gave short presentations about projects that were already in the works, or on the near horizon.
The Birches. A board member from the Birches said that the organization was close to picking a site for a new building, and that building would definitely be in the Musquodoboit Harbour area.
Harbour Garden Village. Chisholm walked through his proposal to build a large housing project on land above the Railway Station. He explained that he had bought the necessary land, had had very encouraging meetings with HRM Planning staff, and had just finished cutting a rough road onto the land in order to complete geophysical work. His development would have a small square with a building for the Musquodoboit Harbour Farmers Market, a boutique hotel, a woodworking shop, a garden, and retail shops with apartments above. The development would also include clusters of small (1,000 sq. ft) Craftsman-style houses around the square. The entire development would be state-of-the-art “green,” and would include affordable (no more than 30% of income) housing.
The Old School Community Gathering Place. Bradley ran through a lengthy list of programs already underway at the Old School, including a water project (a pumphouse near the Trail), affordable housing (in partnership with Chisholm’s development), and, through a United Way grant, emergency housing navigation. Bradley introduced Pam Macleod, the navigator, who shared that she had 87 individuals or families on her list needing housing immediately. Bradley mentioned the Well-Being HUBS project, and introduced Michelle Williams, the navigator for seniors across the region. The Old School also runs the federally funded Youth Employment Skills program (YESS). Over the past three years, more than 45 young people have benefitted, finding work, going back to school, or starting their own businesses.
Affordable Housing. The Old School has applied for Rapid Housing Initiative funds to build affordable housing on land Chisholm will donate. The funds would pay for twelve 2 and 3-bedroom passive solar small row homes built over the ensuing 18 months, with an additional 12 nearby if future funding permits.
Railway Museum. The Museum had finally taken ownership from the province of the land the Museum sits on. With a newly extended platform overlooking the Sober Island Beer Garden with new sound equipment, with the Polar Express and the Bandwagon nearby, Rowlings forecast an even busier summer around the Museum.
Musquodoboit Harbour Farmers Market Bruce (and 4-H). The Musquodoboit Harbour Farmers Market’s Bruce Murphy talked about the success of the “Market Bucks” program last year and plans to return to the Railway Museum for the summer. Murphy, who also co-owns The French Duck Farm, added that he and his wife Stephanie were getting a local 4-H Club underway.
MH Trail Association. Craig McCrea from the MH Trail Association spoke about the work volunteers have completed repairing the damage from Hurricane Fiona and shared the need for more work that needs to be done. He said volunteers from as far away as Truro and Prospect had responded to online requests for help with the Fiona. Based on a trip counter on the Park Road end of the trail, and parking at the Gibraltar Rock northern end, the Association estimates that there were more than 60,000 Trail users in 2022. They are working with NS Environment and DNR for permission to build some new access points to the wilderness trails to make some of the longer ones more accessible and are also looking at a new parking area mid to upper area of trail to also allow more access to the wilderness area.
Nova Scotia Health’s Lindsay Landry and Roberta Duschene shared the province’s commitment to address the emergency room challenges and the positive steps being made to look ahead at healthcare improvements.
MH Chamber of Commerce. Wartman encouraged organizations to consider applying for common area rate funds, which the Chamber oversees, and shared some of the projects the Chamber is working on, including the river park which will provide access to the Musquodoboit River for recreation.
Wartman also emphasized the need for community engagement and volunteerism for all the organizations and efforts. He announced that Doug Griffiths, whose visit was cancelled in November due to storms, will be returning on Tuesday February 7 at 6:30 at the Community Centre/rink to share the film “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.”
For more information, email [email protected] or call 902-889-2735.