MORRISBURG – The long-neglected and embattled Forward House in Iroquois received a stay of execution at Tues., April 3’s South Dundas council meeting.

Council originally approved the demolition of the existing campground building and the historic structure in order to erect a new multi-use building on the current site.

But, after a swell of public pressure, which included numerous letters, phone calls and a petition with 400 signatures was presented, council members decided to finally reopen discussions on what to do with the stone building dating back to the 1820s.

Further complicating the issue was a report submitted by Buller Crichton Environmental Inc. showing asbestos and lead within the building. Any potential renovation or demolition would require an environmental services company to deal with the contamination at a cost estimated between $20,000 and $47,000.

The much-debated Forward House in Iroquois. Press Photo – Schoch

Councillor Bill Ewing was the first to speak and suggested a new course of action by designating Forward House as a heritage building, but he admitted it would be a long road with lots of heavy lifting by the municipality. 

“There’s going be work that the municipality is going to have to do and that could take two years,” said Ewing.

That motion was eventually removed by Ewing after it became clear that a heritage designation would only further increase the costs of potential renovations. Mayor Evonne Delegarde used neighbouring South Stormont as an example.

“South Stormont is in a predicament with a historical building in St. Andrews that is going to need upwards of $500,000 to repair that building. Because there’s a historical designation, they’re being dictated to by the government… it’s going to cost them a lot of money,” said Delegarde. 

Deputy-Mayor Jim Locke was unwavering in his opinion as he read from prepared notes. He supported re-opening the discussion not because he was in favour of saving the Forward House, but because he believed the new building should be in a more practical location.

“I do not believe the building should be on the site where the Forward House now stands. We will be accommodating three principal users and a more central location should be considered. For example, the area of the southwest corner of the lawn bowling greens. This area is preferred by the bowlers that I have talked to and it will be convenient to more of the majority of campers,” said Locke.

When it came to the fate of the Forward House, he raised several concerns and was adamant that no tax money should be used in its refurbishment.

“I do not support the use of any tax dollars on the restoration. Even if the proposed petition could raise the necessary funds, and that’s a minimum of $500 from the 400 signatures that’s just a start. What would the building be used for? Iroquois already has an abundance of meeting spots. Would the municipality be interested in the operating expense of another building? When the Carman House is brought up to standards and properly maintained I feel the taxpayers will be doing due diligence toward preserving the history of the area,” he said.

Councillor Archie Mellan also didn’t believe tax dollars should be spent on its restoration with so many big-ticket items on the horizon.

“We’ve got in the next few years a lot of money to spend in this municipality. We have roads, bridges and sidewalks that we have not put money toward. We have water towers that are going to take a lot of money and we have landfills and that scares me as much as anything,” he said. “I cannot sit here and say that we should put tax dollars into that when we have such large commitments coming down the pipe. For the usage and what it will be for I cannot justify it.  People out there are hurting. There are low income families out there and single income families out there that just cannot afford to put any money from taxes into this.”

Mellan lamented the loss of a historical building in the area and admitted the deterioration of its condition lies at the feet of this and previous councils. However, history comes with a price.

“The condition of that building has not just popped up in the last couple of years. It’s been an ongoing issue. This council and previous councils before, with hindsight, can go back and say we should have put money into it. We didn’t put money into it and it has deteriorated to the point that it’s going to cost mega bucks to fix it up,” said Mellan.   

“You can’t just take the historical significance and attach a dollar amount to that and I agree with that.  But it comes a point that we have to make a choice and it’s a very hard choice, on where we’re going to spend our money, and I just cannot mortgage the future and projects we need to do and money we need to spend to try to preserve the past.”

Councillor Marc St. Pierre suggested yet another option.

“Why can’t we just leave the structure there? If it’s in the mandate of the waterfront [committee] and the historical society group wants to get involved, maybe there are funds that can be raised through the groups that can fix up the exterior. Let’s fix up the exterior, figure out how much it’s going to cost us and lock the doors and lock the windows and leave it as a monument. I don’t think we need to access that building at this time or in the future.  Leave it as monument of historic significance,” he said. “Work with the waterfront committee to see what kind of funds they want to come in and raise to keep the Forward House because they’ve clearly said to us it’s in their mandate… so let the community rise up and if there’s money to be spent, well, raise the money and fix up the exterior and walk away.”

Mellan didn’t see that option as worth pursuing.

“I’m not in favour of starting the building, putting money into it and then leaving it there. To me, that’s a bigger injustice than trying to find a use for the building,” he said. 

When Delegarde had an opportunity to speak, she was skeptical of the petition presented and cited confusion on the part of shopkeepers as to what property they were attempting to save. She also counted several duplicate and triplicate signatures, as well as some other dishonest practices by those behind the petition. 

“I was approached to sign the petition, which of course, I did not. However, I was asked to put down my husbands name and my kids names.  I don’t want to demean the efforts by the people who did the petition, but there is a little bit of skepticism whether it is 400 names or maybe it was actually 200 legitimate names,” she said.

Delegarde proceeded to list several other major concerns about the possibility of bringing the Forward House up to code. The engineering report didn’t include the condition of the foundation, an accurate assessment of the underbelly of the roof or the condition of the chimney. She was also quick to dispel the idea of private fundraising as it would only delay the inevitable.

“We’re giving a lot of false hope. It may be inevitable down the road in six months the whole same conversation has to happen again and that would be very stressful on everyone. I believe that had there been options for funds coming forward we may have seen some commitments at this point in time… and I know the Iroquois waterfront committee is running on very limited funds,” said Delegarde.

She instead suggested the municipality focus their efforts on Carman House.

“To me Carman House is the perfect location. I don’t think there’s any question ever that it is of historical significance to the municipality and as such houses our museum,” she said, “Carman House, to me, is the historical avenue to pursue, which I think should be designated.”

Locke agreed with that sentiment. 

“Let’s put the money into the Carman House and really make it the way it should be. I can envision a property beside that building using the stones from [Forward House] for a stone wall. It would be beautiful,” said Locke. 

After a lengthy discussion and with all options exhausted, council took a vote. Mellan, St. Pierre and Ewing voted in favour of demolishing the campground building, leaving the Forward House and building on a new site while Delegarde and Locke voted in favour of demolishing both structures and building on a new site.

Municipal staff will now proceed with plans on a new building while the fate of Forward House now lies in the hands of the citizens of South Dundas.

What exactly can be done with the embattled building will be discussed further at a future council meeting.