Initiative to save Sophiasburgh school garners widespread support
More than 50 people, including representatives from three levels of government, attended an information meeting about the status of the County Food Hub project. Initially conceived as a means to save Sophiasburgh Central School from closure after the school was deemed to have insufficient enrolment according to Ministry of Education standards, the project envisions the creation of a commercial kitchen, facilities for food and equipment storage, and provision of space for businesses looking to expand regionally. Already the project has drawn firm commitments from two County organizations totalling $40,000 per year. The project is on a tight timeline, and must provide a viable business plan to the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board (HPEDSB) by April 30.
The community was given a oneyear reprieve by HPEDSB to provide an alternate use for the school facility to avoid closure. A steering committee led by Mike Farrell and Todd Foster was established to seek solutions. The idea of a community food hub was suggested by Food to Share founder Glen Wallis, who was looking for a commercial kitchen large enough to meet his group’s needs. Farrell took the idea and expanded upon it. “This started out as something to save the school,” he said. “Very quickly it dawned on us that this is a lot more than saving a school. It’s about maintaining vibrancy within a community. You pull a school out of the community and the tone changes—you don’t see families wanting to be here as much anymore, you don’t see innovative people and industry wanting to get involved in this area.”
The plan for the school involves redesigning the entire northwest wing of the building to be used as a commercial kitchen and auxiliary space. A firewall will separate it from the remainder of the building, which—with the current enrolment of 131 students—will meet the education ministry’s space-per-student criterion. It is expected that the school curriculum will be expanded to take advantage of the new facility. The design process is being done by BelCon Design Builders Inc, and the current estimated cost of the project is $905,000. The steering committee has already applied for grants totalling $165,000 and expects to seek further money from other government and community funding sources. It has gained a not-for-profit charity status and is ramping up its community fundraising activities by seeking local donors.
The project is receiving attention at federal, provincial and municipal levels. MP Neil Ellis spoke briefly at the meeting, acknowledging support from the federal government. MPP Todd Smith said there is broad support at the provincial level from all parties, and praised the work that the community has already done. “This community really knows how to rally, how to stand up for itself,” he said. “You have made a difference in keeping the school open. It’s people like you that are stepping up to answer the call and ensure there is a real viable use for the school. We have a real opportunity here to make sure something positive comes out of this.” Mayor Robert Quaiff has taken this issue to Queen’s Park, speaking about it with education minister Indira Nadoo-Harris at a recent delegation from the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference. Sophiasburgh councillor Bill Roberts was also there to express his support. “Everyone is pulling in the same direction to make this project possible. This speaks to not only rural education, but it speaks to food insecurity, it speaks to our agribusiness…and it speaks to giving our students the best experiential learning opportunity out there.”
Farrell is enthusiastic about the project and is confident of its success, particularly as it relates to keeping his community as a family-friendly place. “Our vision is very clear,” he said. “We want to provide Ontario with a model approach to strengthening rural education that makes use of surplus school space, while still active, to provide educational opportunities for students, and social and economic opportunities for the community. Part of our goal is to make this a magnet for new families who might be interested in the enhanced learning opportunities for their children.”
To learn more about this project, visit the group’s Facebook page: facebook.com/thesophiasburghopportunity