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Loreena's School of Thought

Taken from the Canadian Living Magazine 
by Diane Sewell

The headline of the local paper in Stratford, Ont. confirmed the rumors: Loreena McKennitt, local resident and international recording star, had outbid developers and bought the city's historic Falstaff Public School. "It was risky," Loreena now admits. "I didn't have a plan. It was an act of faith." On November 8th, 2000, about 100 people had gathered inside the school for the auction; many were neighbours whose children had been students there. An anxious Kim McDonald, who had also volunteered at Falstaff, was one. "Our worst fear was that it would be torn down. It would have been such a loss to the community," she says. "It's such an incredible place. The
rooms just invite you into them."

Also in the crowd were potential buyers, school board officials, municipal politicians, and the local
media, but Loreena was actually out of the country. Determined to buy the school, she had asked Terry Carham, a Toronto chartered accountant to attend the auction on her behalf and to keep her
interest under wraps. "You never know how it may affect the price," she says. Named after a Shakespearean character, as are all of the public elementary schools in Stratford, Falstaff had faced an
uncertain future for many years. Often under populated, it was small, inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair, and had a tiny gym without a stage, but it was an architectural gem. Built in 1929 and the only neo-Gothic building in Stratford, it boasted decorative stone molding, huge leaded windows that actually opened, and a central kindergarten room with doors that unfolded down its length. Shaded by
mature maples, the surrounding lawn provided a place for children to play and families to walk their dogs in summer. In winter a gentle slope called to young tobogganers. 

The school inspired tremendous loyalty in several generations of students. Their parents held annual
parties and (something) and formed an active council that fought hard to keep it open. But low enrolment and high upkeep sealed its fate. Loreena, a veteran of other community efforts to rescue heritage buildings, learned of its impending sale a scant three weeks before the auction. She worried that only developers would be prepared for the sale, that any community group wouldn't be able to organize in time. Moving quickly, she and Terry established a ballpark estimate of the building's worth. At the auction, Terry jumped in with an opening bid of $500,000. Someone else bid $505,000. Terry upped his
bid to $600,000 (?) and that's when the action began. Placed by people Terry couldn't see, the bids came fast and furious. Finally he threw in the winning bid of $630,000. By his estimate, it all took
less than 15 minutes. "It was exciting, but at the same time I think people were worried," he says. "A lot of them were expecting a developer would buy the property and bulldoze the building. It was my
sense that that's exactly who we were fighting against."

  In a news release the next day Loreena identified herself as the buyer. It read in part: "Maintaining a variety of diverse land and building uses - rather than creating another housing development -
helps keep Stratford a vibrant, vigorous community. This building has been a significant part of the community for many years and many generations of Stratford residents have a deep-seated connection with it." 

Kim, who lives across the road from the school, was delighted and says, "the other neighbours felt the same. It had a big impact on us. We were thrilled that someone with her vision, her spirit, and
her generosity bought it." Although she hadn't set out to become the proud owner of a public school, Loreena says she felt somehow "responsible for helping to guide it back into the community's hands." It's not as though she needed something to do. Heralded for her eclectic Celtic music, the 49 (47)-year-old
recording artist heads up her own record label, Quinlan Road, which has sold more than 13 million albums worldwide. She has also founded several charities. 

Always on the go and often traveling outside Canada, Loreena somehow found time for Falstaff. "I feel very passionately about the continuity of our history and the continuity of our identity," she says. "I'm not very well versed in urban planning, but I have an amateur (?) kind of appreciation." That
appreciation translated into action that energized the community. Her first step, after the purchase, was to hold a public meeting to find out how people thought the building should be used. The standing-room-only crowd wanted it preserved for families - for the arts, education, and social services.

 It was soon renamed the Falstaff Family Center and the next summer, Loreena hired a project consultant, John Devilin, who assembled a steering committee of eight volunteers: a former city mayor turned community activist, a one-time school administrator, a lawyer, a social worker, the parent
of a former student, a neighbour, an engineer, and a marketing expert. Everyone had "a personal commitment to the project," says John. Over the next six weeks they refused the center's mission to serve
families and children without duplicating services provided by other groups, while respecting the heritage of the building and the integrity of the neighborhood.

Staying posted on the committees work, Loreena immersed herself in the smallest details, from picking paint colors to choosing biodegradable cleaning supplies, and visited the centre regularly to stay focused on what the Falstaff Family Centre should become.

  “Our goal was to keep it fresh, interesting and noninstitutional,” she says. “We wanted to find a package of complementary things to anchor the building with permanent tenants while protecting certain spaces that could be used on a fee-for-service basis. We also didn’t want the building to be stigmatized in any way that might suggest it was a place you’d go to only if you were in some kind of difficulty.”

  When the committee completed it’s mandate, John created a board of eight directors to plan for long-term viability.  During the next six months the board secured a Trillium grant to hire an executive director for the centre, established competitive rental rates and advertised the available spaces.

  Meanwhile a slew of local trades people painted, plastered and repaired the building bringing it up to code and installing fire doors made to look like the originals.  They also installed a ramp and elevator and updated the washroom to ensure accessibility for everyone.  The tiny kitchen was refurbished, but the classrooms, complete with blackboards, remained largely unchanged.  Afterward, the interior looked much the same as it had - only prettier, cleaner and fresher, with rugs, meeting tables and comfortable chairs replacing desks.  Overall, Loreena estimates she invested more than $1 million for the purchase of the building and the renovations.

In early 2002 the first tenant, Family Services Perth-Huron, moved in, offering life and literacy skills to 45 developmentally challenged persons.  Initiated by families with developmentally challenged children and the staff at Family Services Perth-Huron, a Snoezelen room was added.  The only one in the area, it provides relaxation and sensory stimulation to people with Alzheimer's disease, autism and other challenges. 

In April 2002 a second anchor tenant was announced: the Ontario Early Years Centre for Perth-Middlesex, one of 105 sites funded by the Ontario Government to provide early learning programs for children, parenting information, resources and training, and early literacy. 

Other groups rent space in former classrooms as the need it.  Children come in for Kindermusik classes.  Adults show up for self-employment workshops, yoga lessons and Pilates sessions. The Scouts have used the centre and a classical theatre training program, called Playmakers!, stage it's performances in the old kindergarten classroom, now the community room. 

With the help of the community, the preliminary development has been successfully navigated, Loreena believes.  The renovations are done, the protocols, policies and procedures are in place and, just before Christmas, the centre was granted charitable status.  This enables it to issue receipts for donations and organize fund-raisers.

Although the centre is closer to being self sufficient, Loreena still underwrites about $150,000 a year - a figure she predicts will "go down considerably" as fund-raising begins and rentals multiply.  Loreena and her Quinlan Road staff, which includes her lawyer and accountant, oversee the operations of Falstaff Family Centre.  A full-time administrative assistant answers inquiries, books and sets up rooms and looks after day-to-day events.

"To have it got up and operating and contributing something to the community is fantastic," says Loreena.  She still plans to sell the centre someday, but only to a buyer who is committed to the same vision.  Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson says city officials would certainly look at the property, although they have yet to asked.  "It's something our social and community services department should probably discuss.  We'd have to see if it fitted into our plans."

Other communities could use someone like Loreena.  According to Heritage Canada - a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization created in 1973 to promote the preservation of Canadian Heritage buildings and historic places - Canada lost about 22 per cent of its historic buildings between 1970 and 2000.  Currently there are very few programs or incentives to support the preservation of heritage buildings, explains Brian Anthony, executive director of Heritage Canada.  But rescuing these old structures is worth the effort; the benefits of historic building to tourism and new commercial enterprise are well documented.  He says "These old buildings have a kind of magic to them that new buildings don't usually have."

That magic has not been lost to Stratford - not this time.  "There have been so many people who have come to me and said, 'That building and what you've done to it means so much to me'" says Loreena.  "I feel very privileged that I've been in a line of work that has allowed me to do something that I know many, many people would do were they in a similar circumstance.  We all have to do our part."