Feds step in with $2.1M to save house

Flaherty pledges funds to keep heritage building from falling apart

It looked as though O’Connor House, a dilapidated neo-colonial mansion in northeastern Don Mills, was destined to disintegrate.
That was, until the federal government stepped in to save it.

The government will put $2.1 million toward refurbishment, finance minister Jim Flaherty announced at an annual St. Patrick’s Day lunch on March 12.

The mansion is on the property of Senator O’Connor College High School and is owned by the Toronto District Catholic School Board. Six years ago the board decided to cut the mansion off from city services, effectively expediting its demise despite a heritage property designation.

Then things got worse for O’Connor House.

“The previous supervisor directed the Catholic school board to apply for a demolition permit. He wanted to knock the building down because they couldn’t find the money for it,” said councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.

The permit was never granted. Instead, a group of locals, under the chairmanship of former Don Mills MPP Dennis Timbrell, united to bring the historic house back to life under the banner O’Connor Irish Heritage House.

They envisioned a place built around Irish heritage education and celebration, but serving the broader community.

It would be a place to learn, host community and student events and above all, serve as a permanent monument to Senator Frank O’Connor, who built the place in 1933.

A group of MBA students from Ryerson put together a business plan, and Minnan-Wong, a graduate of Senator O’Connor, got on board.

“You’ve got to retain buildings and landmarks that recognize, celebrate and remind people that there is actually a rich history in Don Mills,” he said, going on to explain his admiration for the building’s namesake.

“Frank O’Connor was a very important city builder for the City of Toronto, was very important for the archdiocese as well,” said Minnan-Wong, who also praised the late senator for being one of the first to set up a profit-sharing system with his employees at his company, chocolatier Laura Secord.

“He is one of the most important historical figures in this area.”

The only trouble was that it was going to cost approximately $4 million to bring the house up to a standard suitable for public use.
Potential investors were shy.

But then something happened to give hope: the federal government announced new infrastructure grant options under the broader Economic Action Plan. It didn’t take long for Dibrell and councillor Minnan-Wong to write letters and set up meetings.

“I immediately fired off a letter to the federal minister responsible for infrastructure (John Baird),” Timbrell said.

Luckily for O’Connor House, Minnan-Wong knew both Baird and Flaherty personally.

“I went directly to them, had meetings with them, to talk about infrastructure funding and O’Connor House,” said Minnan-Wong.

And now, pending federal treasury board approval, which Timbrell said is expected in the coming few weeks, O’Connor house is halfway funded.

The effect of this federal boost of confidence, said Timbrell, is that investors are now much more likely to back the project.

“Now that we’ve got the government’s obvious support I think it’s going to help to expedite the fundraising,” Timbrell said.
“It’s a great momentum builder,” said Minnan-Wong.

Following the announcement the architects hired by Timbrell’s group to assess the project sent a note to Ottawa predicting that substantial completion of the work is possible my March of next year.

“It puts the onus on all of us to get out and hustle the balance of money and get on with getting the programs going for the community,” he said.

Minnan-Wong is also looking ahead.

“It’s going to be a great building when it’s finished.”

About this article:

By: Christopher Reynolds
Posted: Apr 5 2010 12:05 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto