Plans are in the works for Meaford’s former high school, as well as its neighbouring running track and green space.

A Toronto-based not-for-profit is proposing to turn the site of Meaford’s former high school at St. Vincent Street into an engineering and trades college, while the municipality is setting aside funds and seeking the county’s help to buy the nearby track property to construct affordable housing.

The former Georgian Bay Secondary School closed in 2021 when the new kindergarten to Grade 12 Georgian Bay Community School opened. The Bluewater District School Board sold the building and declared the neighbouring track property surplus.

Meaford Mayor Ross Kentner said in a Facebook post he and Deputy-mayor Shirley Keaveney recently met with Amaninder Bharj, who founded the Toronto Excellence College, alongside his wife. The couple initially hoped to construct a campus in Toronto, but branched out and purchased the former Georgian Bay Secondary School in Meaford when its search for a suitable building in the city fell short.

In an e-mailed response to questions, Bharj said the sale of the former school building closed in June. He called the building a perfect match for the needs of the college.

According to the Toronto Excellence College website, the federally incorporated not-for-profit organization is looking for $8 million in donations toward the $20-$25 million Meaford Campus project with a tentative start date in September 2024, although there are several regulatory hurdles, as well as renovations and curriculum approvals to satisfy before the trade school can open to students.

Bharj said the TEC is working with an engineering firm that is proposing repairs to the roof, electrical and HVAC systems as part of a refurbishment.

In a statement on the TEC website, Bharj said he moved to Canada in 2007 with a degree in computer science, and after facing challenges in the information and technology job market, he ventured into an insurance brokerage career. It’s there he was able to “bridge the gap” between technology and insurance “leading to a flourishing business” serving over 1,000 insurance agents nationally.

Bharj said he and his wife Rasneet (a member of the Ontario College of Teachers since 2010) dreamed of opening a post-secondary school to provide engineering and computer science training and eventually expanded on their idea.

“As we delved deeper into the needs and possibilities of opening the institute, it became evident that there was a burgeoning demand for trades and a variety of other skills, besides engineering and computer science,” Bharj said in a statement on the website for the proposed college.

Bharj the college will refurbish the former GBSS building while boosting local employment and providing opportunities for local post-secondary students to study at home. The post said 80 per cent of the student population will be domestic pupils while 20 per cent will be international students.

Bharj said tuition fees will be on par with similar colleges.

In the mayor’s Facebook post, Kentner said the town’s lack of post-secondary education options is one of the toughest economic realities faced by the community.

Kentner said he recommended Bharj “dovetail” course offerings with those offered by Georgian College at campuses in Owen Sound and Collingwood while exploring the trades needs of TC Energy for its massive proposed pumped-storage project in the municipality.

Kentner also noted the college has applied to the municipality’s planning department for a residential component to go along with the trades school. Up to 80 residential units may be included on the college’s campus for students and faculty, Kentner said.

“We’re excited about this development on a number of levels. It is so important to have post-secondary education opportunities in the community. Students need part-time jobs and we have jobs to be filled. Having a cohort of post-secondary students living in Meaford will be a significant economic boost to the municipality,” Kentner said.

Meanwhile, Keaveney said in a post to Facebook that she intends to put forward a motion at Grey County’s September 28 council meeting asking council to direct staff to return with a report identifying potential options for the nearby track property.

Meaford council held a special council meeting Monday to discuss the future of the property. As part of that meeting, a senior planner with Grey County gave a presentation outlining the need for affordable housing within the county.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore options for this location which would maintain as much green space as possible while adding affordable rental units to the property,” Keaveney said.

The issue became a key talking point during the 2022 municipal election, with many residents wanting the municipality to purchase the property from the Bluewater District School Board and keep it open to the public.

The school board has since declared the land surplus, and the municipality has one more month to express interest in purchasing the property.

Meaford council has agreed to pull $500,000 from reserves to put towards the asking price, which Keaveney said the municipality is unable to share with the public.

Keaveney said the asking price prevents the municipality from purchasing the property independently and keeping it as a public green space.

“This is a huge and expensive undertaking that Meaford cannot manage ourselves, we do not have the resourcing, staff capacity or available funds,” Keaveney said.

Grey County is holding $370,100 in reserves for an affordable housing project in Meaford. The money is the county portion of the PILT (Payment in Lieu Settlement) from the federal government for the military base lands at the 4th Canadian Division Training Centre.

“There are many unanswered questions at this point but I am committed to trying to gain control of this property so we have say in the eventual uses for the track which would most benefit our community,” Keaveney said.

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