Proponent of saving St. Stephen town hall pleased with council’s decision

Kathy Bockus/file photo Margaret Williamson, a proponet of saving the old town hall in St. Stephen, is pleased with council's decision to partner with a developer to save the historic structure.

St. Stephen – The woman who launched a very public campaign to save the old town hall says she’s “very, very relieved and very, very pleased” the historic structure won’t be torn down.

“I think everyone would agree if we hadn’t started the ball rolling back in 2014, that building would have been demolished,” said Margaret Williamson of St. Stephen, adding she was pleased with the outcome of two years and four months of work to save the structure.

“We laid the groundwork, and this is proof we were on the right track,” said Williamson.
Last month council voted to enter into a partnership with Heritage Developments Limited, investing up to $100,000 for the stabilization of the three-storey brick structure, contingent on receiving funding from the federal and provincial governments for its restoration.
Council approved a motion to enter into a development agreement with the Moncton-based company which would see the company complete the stabilization and renovations to turn the historic structure on the downtown waterfront into a multi-use office and community space.

At the end of three years, the town will turn ownership of the building over to Heritage Developments Limited for a nominal fee. Heritage Developments is the same company which renovated the old Ganong chocolate factory on Milltown Boulevard into store fronts, apartments and office space.

“We had a different scenario we could run with, but we’re happy with this one,” said Williamson.

She first approached council in June of 2014 with her questions about the preservation of the three-storey brick structure designed by Thomas Fuller, the architect who designed the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Williamson had learned the town was considering demolishing the building which had sat vacant since council moved its municipal seat in 2009 because of poor air quality and falling bricks from a crumbling façade.

She joined forces with Brenna Hooper, an artist who was in the process of creating an arts council in St. Stephen.

The two, with others, formed The River Arts Resource Council or “The River ARC” and developed a business plan for the repurposing of the old town hall, turning it into an arts centre, in partnership with the town and with the help of government grants. The group also proposed the town invest the up to $100,000 demolition cost into stabilizing the building.

Council was not receptive, but the group persevered, acquiring free assessments from interested architects and engineers and circulating a petition which garnered 1,500 names favouring the saving of the old town hall.

Williamson said if it wasn’t for the pressure the public placed on the former council and the continued pressure on the current council, there wouldn’t be an old town hall for Heritage Developments Limited to preserve.

She said she was pleased the new mayor and council were “open to doing this deal.”
“I commend them for seeing it through.”

Williamson said she thinks, over all, The River ARC did a good job of raising public awareness to the importance of preserving the old town hall which gave time for New Brunswick Southwest MP Karen Ludwig and Charlotte –Campobello MLA and Tourism and Heritage Minister John Ames time “to get their ducks in a row.”

“They were both relatively new and we gave them time to work within their systems. It has come together quite beautifully in my opinion.”

She noted “I was a broken record, saying for years there was federal and provincial funding.

“I’m pleased they (the town) are moving forward with the exact same plan I had proposed.”

Williamson said she could not stress enough the importance of public involvement in municipal decisions.

“It’s important for public to recall it was individuals who came forward and made the effort to bring the issue to public awareness. The building would have come down if the public was not involved in it.”

Williamson praised the help of lawyer David Ames who “stepped right up.”  She said she remembered “my shock and horror” when the town said the building was too far gone and was going to be demolished. Ames stepped in and became a key player behind the scenes.
She said the plans for the old town hall “meshes beautifully” with the work of Future St. Stephen and proposed downtown redevelopment.

As for The River ARC plans, Williamson said the group is moving forward with its own plans and its future is not dependent on locating an art centre in the old town hall.
“We may someday,” she said.