People in Old Ottawa South are certainly keen supporters of their community and there is lots of evidence from the past to support that claim. Perhaps the most memorable example was how people here stepped up and worked hard to fund-raise, and lobby for, the renovation and expansion of our community centre a decade ago.
We take the renovated Firehall for granted and assume it was always, more or less, the enormous resource that it is today. But back in the 1990s and the early 2000s it was not so. While a beloved icon of our community, with a long and distinguished history as a fire station for the southern part of what was then the old City of Ottawa, the Firehall was, to say the least, in pretty poor shape.
Converted into a community centre in 1977-78 through a low-cost renovation, it essentially kept the floor plan of a building designed in the early 1920s to house fire engines and fire fighters. Actually, those fire engines were initially horse drawn and the building originally included stables!
Not surprisingly, the interior was far from optimally designed to serve as our community centre: people had to go through one room with programming going on to get to another activity room, the washrooms were tiny, there was no kitchen, and only a cramped little registration desk and entry area to receive clients, nowhere to store coats and boots, and the building had outdated electrical, plumbing and heating systems that often didn’t work properly. And, after 20 years of intensive use the minimalist renovation carried out in 1977 had reached the end of its life with wear and tear showing everywhere: worn out floors, broken fixtures and damaged walls, and a building that was difficult to keep clean and looked dowdy and uninviting.
As pressure for a better facility built in the community the OSCA Board decided to launch a multi-year campaign to fight for a renovated community centre. The campaign consisted of two parts: a community design effort to see what could be done to renovate and expand the centre, and second, a multiyear fund-raising campaign to demonstrate to the City that the community was behind the project. This was no small issue as the City had tried earlier to close both the Glebe and Old Ottawa South community centres as an economy measure. With amalgamation on the horizon to create a bigger City, which would be dominated by the growing suburban municipalities, Old Ottawa South needed a forceful demonstration that we were committed as a community to this project.
The design work started in 1998 and through the volunteer efforts of some local architects and Carleton University architecture students, community design charettes were held and a preliminary set of design drawings and an architect’s model of what the new centre could look like were completed. Shortly afterwards fundraising started in earnest. As a first step OSCA created a charity, the Old Ottawa South Firehall Development Fund, which was subsequently registered with the Canada Revenue Agency and so we could issue tax receipts for donations received towards the renovation project. A Board committee headed by former President John Graham and a very large group of enthusiastic volunteers organized a series of annual fundraisers involving dinners and auctions which became the premier events on Old Ottawa South’s social calendar.
The lobster suppers, or Maritime Kitchen Parties, were huge events with well over 300 people attending for an evening of lobster with all the trimmings, refreshments and “down east” entertainment. Usually held at the large gym at Hopewell Public School, the events were packed and were preceded by silent auctions and good old-fashioned live bidding auctions after the dinner and entertainment. The auctions were particularly memorable because what was on offer was donated by community members themselves and it was amazing collection: valuable art work and collectibles, vacations at people’s cottages, quilts made by people in the community, gourmet dinners catered in your home, and all kinds of services such as housewife for a day basement cleaning, babysitting, children’s entertainment for birthdays, and lunches and dinners with local worthies and celebrities. One enterprising individual even offered an afternoon drive in the autumn colours of Lanark county in a vintage sports car with a gourmet lunch included. The important point was that what was offered was personal and individual and was often the product of the donator’s own efforts and skills.
The auctions and diners were a huge success and ran for at least five years. The last couple of these events raised well over $30,000 in a single evening. A campaign was also organized to encourage members in the community who were public servants, and there were a lot of those, to donate to the Firehall fund through their annual Government Workplace Charitable Campaign. Public servants could contribute through bi-weekly payroll deductions; so, by donating say $20.00 a pay, community members in the public service could, over the course of a year, make a very substantial donation of $520 to the project, and many did so.
By 2008 the community through its fundraising, and OSCA from its operating surpluses on programming activity and from The OSCAR’s operating reserves, had managed to raise a total of over $350,000 towards the renovation project. In 2007 OSCA also lobbied the provincial government and managed to obtain $200,000 as a contribution towards the soft costs of developing detailed designs and estimates for the renovation. As a result, when the federal government announced its recession fighting national infrastructure fund in 2008, the Firehall project was “shovel ready” and was included as one of the City of Ottawa projects for federal funding. The $3.2 million renovation was approved in the City’s 2009 Budget and the renovated and expanded Firehall opened in June 2010.
Old Ottawa South’s community contribution was one of the largest ever made towards a City project of this type and it was all based on the hard work and financial generosity of one of the smallest communities in Ottawa. It was an example of community engagement and initiative we can all be very proud of.
Michael Jenkin is a member of the OSCA Board and a former longtime OSCA President.