The public school board says the move of 1,000 students to a new and improved Great Lakes Secondary School on Murphy Road is still on track for September.
But the board has not discussed a grassroots effort to convert the iconic SCITS building the students are about to leave into a multi-purpose community hub, said Gary Girard, superintendent of capital planning and accommodation at the Lambton Kent District School Board.
“We’re pleased people are expressing interest in the property,” he said. “But we are focused on the move. Our energy is directed on the transition.”
The former St. Clair building on Murphy is in the midst of a $25.2-million redevelopment. In a few weeks, steel supports will be erected for a 550-seat theatre on the south side of the new school, Girardi said.
Meanwhile, a citizens’ committee is forming with the goal of saving the city’s oldest high school on Wellington Street by converting it into a community centre.
Several local residents including educator and historian Bob McCarthy have suggested SCITS could be used as a municipal office, with a public swimming pool, theatre, museum, offices for non-profits and more.
The Sarnia Historical Society is backing the proposal, and board member Meghan RealeSmith said she will chair the committee, which will develop a formal proposal.
The committee is also pushing to get a heritage designation for the 97-year-old building, RealeSmith said.
McCarthy wants the city to consider selling the existing city hall property overlooking the St. Clair River to help pay for a move to SCITS.
Rough estimates from a handful of realtors contacted by The Journal suggest City Hall’s current location could be worth as much as $1 million. However, the value would hinge on whether the building, opened in 1965, was demolished or converted for another use.
“The city would be selling a very expensive property to occupy a historical property that’s not worth nearly as much,” said Jim Pumple who specializes in commercial development. “It would make a lot of sense.”
The current city hall property would be a great site for an apartment or office building, said realtor Kenn Poore.
“But it’s a nice site for City Hall too. And if you tear down City Hall, you are tearing down a building that’s not so far from being a heritage building itself.”
Poore, part of the GFIVE group redeveloping the former Sarnia General Hospital site, said the conversion of SCITS into a community hub will be a worthwhile conversation.
“It’s a novel idea,” he said. “There are a lot of components of SCITS that are attractive. I just don’t know how adaptable SCITS is.”
But first, the school board has to vacate SCITS and decide if the 9.2-acre property will be declared as surplus and sold. It could be 2019 before that happens, said Girardi.
“No decision has been made in that regard.”
If it is declared surplus, the former SCITS property must be offered to the public sector first at fair market value. That means other school boards, the municipality, province and federal governments will have an opportunity to buy it before it’s available to the private sector.
The real estate value of SCITS has not been determined, Girardi said.
At the time the board decided to close SCITS in favour of redeveloping St. Clair Secondary and creating an amalgamated high school for 1,000 students, renovations and expansion at St. Clair were projected to cost $16 million.