Through sheer will, determination and positive community spirit, Sophiasburgh Central School has been rescued from the jaws of closure and consolidation.
Parents and leaders throughout the ward started a ball rolling back in the late fall of 2016 when the elementary installation was originally considered by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board to be shuttered and students in Sophiasburgh would be shuttled to Picton to be a part of a refurbished Kindergarten-to-Grade 12 facility in time for today’s 2018-19 school year commencement.
The fruits of these people-highly engaged folks that run the spectrum when it comes to employment and family dynamics- was realized Friday when the HPEDSB announced it was signing a five year lease with the The County Food Hub (PECFH) group.
People in Demorestville and Northport and Big Island and Fish Lake and Bethel Street and Crofton and Green Point and Woodville stood up in the face of the great school consolidation exercise of 2017 and said “Not this time and not Sophiasburgh Central School.”
Those that had seen this public school board in action relating to these matters hoped for the best and feared for the worst as Mike Farrell and Todd Foster (perhaps the county’s answer to the odd couple) and other passionate Sophiasburgers unite over a single goal.
Turn excess space in a Centennial-era school into a well utilized and in-demand community gathering space.
Many ideas and concepts were discussed and pored over.
A branch of the Prince Edward County Library and an early years centre were a couple of early thoughts that were investigated.
Eventually, the idea of commercial, provincially inspected kitchen space became more than passing fancy.
The best part of the idea was that culinary skills and concepts could become part of a Sophiasburgh Central School student’s curriculum.
After all, with small-batch food production as a key tenant in Prince Edward County’s productive gastro-economy, there was opportunity to teach skills to students that might serve to stem the drain of young people this community seems to be plagued by.
And businesses needed this space.
Pyramid Ferments and others spoke of the lack of available and suitable kitchen space and it all started to come together.
Available square footage that could be transformed into suitable, industrial space and be booked and rented by anyone from caterers to food producers to youth groups to culinary educators.
The idea would be the easy part.
After some preliminary talks with the school board and a vote by trustees to give the PEC Food Hub group time to bring it all together, the committee members were suddenly on the clock to raise nearly $1 million to fund the construction of the commercial kitchen space.
Grants from all three branches of the government were available and secured by the new, not-for-profit entity and, after an extension was granted by the HPEDSB last spring, the funding portion of the stipulations was in place.
Under the terms of the agreement, PECFH (the County Food Hub) will convert a portion of the west side of the building (5,800 square feet, or the equivalent of five classrooms and storage space) into kitchen space that will service small-scale start up food operations, established caterers, food trucks, restaurants, the local agricultural community, entrepreneurs and not-for-profit food security organizations.
Services to be offered include the following:Shared use commercial kitchen for rental and/or use by businesses and community groupsFood incubator for agricultural operationsBusiness support services for users and Food education and cooking classes available to community members.
According to a press release issued by HPEDSB Friday, the the public, businesses and not-for-profit organizations will be able to rent, at a reasonable cost, a health unit-certified shared commercial kitchen for the safe preparation of food items to support growing businesses and growing food needs in the local community.
There will also be longer-term incubation space leased to qualified local/regional food producers, assisting them in scaling up operations to grow their businesses.
The construction planning and renovations will take place over the next year with the food hub facility expected to be open for summer 2019.
In the release, Board Chair Lucille Kyle called the partnership developed between HPEDSB and PECFH exciting and significant.
A caterer and wedding and events planner based in Bancroft, Kyle has supported the project from its concept stage as the space strikes a chord with someone like herself involved in the service industry.
“I am so proud of the hard work that has been done over the past several months as both parties continue to be committed to this work.” Kyle said. “The safety, as well as the success and well-being of our students, will be a priority as this new venture moves forward.”
Another long time supporter of the concept has been County Council and, specifically, Mayor Robert Quaiff.
The Mayor rarely, if ever, failed to support and speak in favour of the project when he was amongst provincial leaders and ministries that could aid the culinary community hub plan.
“We are thrilled (PECFH) and the (HPEDSB) have reached this important milestone in their partnership. The Prince Edward County community recognized early on the potential for the County Food Hub to leverage our strengths in local food, agriculture and community involvement to develop a unique and potentially trendsetting approach to rural education. We are proud to support this worthwhile initiative. I want to congratulate the County Food Hub volunteers and the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board trustees and staff for working together to develop a solution that protects our unique rural character and enriches our community,” Quaiff said in a statement.
But if there was one person that never lost faith and never doubted Friday’s lease signing would be reality, it was Farrell.
This corner certainly gave Farrell the opportunity to mitigate his feelings over the possibility of the project ever taking flight, especially when fundraising would hit a lull or issues with enrolment or other snares were encountered.
Sophiasburgh’s ‘Mr. Positivity’ never wavered.
At least not publicly and certainly not to your humble scribe.
“It is with extreme satisfaction and excitement that we enter into the next stage of this practical and innovative use of surplus space within an active rural school. We thank the mayor, Council and Community Development offices of Prince Edward County for their tireless dedication to this project, and we thank the HPEDSB staff and trustees for their partnership,” Farrell said “Together with our hard-working community volunteers, generous local and regional supporters, politicians at all levels of government, leaders in the regional service and culinary industry, and parents in the region, we are poised to make a difference here in Prince Edward County and the Bay of Quinte. You show people just a little ray of light and it’s amazing how many new rays of light join in.”