Just maybe it could work.
Maybe a beloved south-end landmark can be saved by moving City Hall into the former SCITS building after the high school shuts down later this year.
“It’s a novel and interesting idea that’s worth considering instead of dismissing it out of hand,” said city councillor Anne Marie Gillis, who attended a public meeting hosted by the Sarnia Historical Society last week.
She and about 30 people at the Canadian Royal Legion discussed how Sarnians might more readily see the city’s historical artifacts housed at the Lambton Heritage Museum in Grand Bend.
Bob McCarthy, a local educator and historian, used the opportunity to circulate a four-page proposal to convert the SCITS building on Wellington Street, currently known as Great Lakes Secondary, into a community centre housing a civic museum, City Hall, municipally operated theatre, public swimming pool, cafeteria and non-profit offices.
The idea has quietly been making the rounds for some time, according to Gillis.
“Councillors have casually talked about it,” she said, noting City Hall can’t accommodate all departments and some are “scattered” in off-site buildings.
This was the first time a more formal proposal was put on paper, Gillis added.
Exploring the possibility of selling the current City Hall at George and Christina streets and moving municipal operations into the historic building met with overwhelming support.
“I applaud Bob’s proposal,” said historical society president Ron RealeSmith. “I really don’t want to see what has happened to the old SGH (Sarnia General Hospital) building, where it sits for years and deteriorates.”
“SCITS should be preserved,” said McCarthy. “If we don’t do something in six to eight months the property could be sold and it will be gone.”
Despite fierce opposition, Lambton Kent District School Board trustees voted in 2016 to shut down Sarnia’s oldest high school and merge its students with those from St. Clair Secondary to create Great Lakes. The combined student body is expected to move into a refurbished St. Clair building on Murphy Road in September.
Once closed, the SCITS property must be offered to various public bodies before going on the open market.
McCarthy said candidates in this year’s provincial and municipal elections should be challenged to press for government funding to convert the building.
“There’s any number of ways to rescue SCITS,” said McCarthy noting City Hall sits on prime waterfront real estate ideal for high-rise development.
The meeting was prompted by the historical society’s desire to bring home at least some of the 3,200 Sarnia historical artifacts stored in Grand Bend.
Without a museum of their own, Sarnians must travel 50 minutes to see their history, RealeSmith said.
Andrew Meyer, corporate cultural manager for Lambton County, said it’s possible some of the artifacts could be displayed in the county-operated library system as soon as this year.
Three of the county’s 26 libraries are in Sarnia – on Christina Street, in Bright’s Grove and on Lambton Mall Road.
“That presents a tremendous opportunity,” Meyer said.
McCarthy argued a full-fledged museum at SCITS would be better. Many Sarnians are hanging on to important historical items in their homes because they don’t want them stored away at a county facility, he said.
“We are a community of over 70,000 people with no (public) museum. That’s wrong.”
Gillis said it took 10 years of discussion and planning before a Category A public art gallery was built in downtown Sarnia.
“And it started with sessions just like this,” she said.
McCarthy suggested formation of a committee to write a more formal proposal related to SCITS and present it to city council.