The future of the historic Donald chemical building is now in doubt with the non-profit co-operative trying to restore it contemplating litigation against the structure’s owner.
The partnership between a local co-op and owner Jim O’Connor is no more.
After the co-op invested more than $90,000 in grant funding and donations to help restore the building, the planned lifetime lease of the property to the group never came to pass.
Co-op member, The Land Between, received a legal opinion on a potential lawsuit May 29.
Co-founder of The Land Between, Leora Berman, who has also managed the project for the co-op, said legal action would be a last resort.
“I’m hoping Jim sees the light. Sees the importance of the building,” Berman said. “No one will fund a private individual for their personal gain. It should be in public hands.”
The Highlander reached out repeatedly to O’Connor. He declined an interview and did not provide any answers to a submitted list of questions. He instead said to refer to a story published in the June 18 edition of The Haliburton Echo.
The only comment from O’Connor in the story was indirect, and stated: “O’Connor said as the owner of the building, he wanted to move forward with the restoration and was working on it himself now.”
The partnership between the co-op and O’Connor began in 2010.
With the structure decaying, Berman gathered organizations out of a desire to preserve the historic building.
It is the last remaining from the Standard Chemical Company Plant, at one time the largest producer of iron coke in North America.
The informal co-op, which also included the Haliburton Highlands Outdoors Association (HHOA), the Haliburton Highlands Stewardship Council, the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) and the Canadian Industrial Heritage Centre, signed a memorandum of understanding with O’Connor.
The lease agreement stated that once the Donald Innovation Centre Cooperative had been created, a “life-time lease” would be drafted and come into place.
About $92,000 was invested by the co-op towards the initiative, according to Berman. She planned to utilize the space as a marketing hub for the local construction sector.
After the co-op formally came into being in March 2015, Berman said she tried repeatedly to get a new contract signed.
But nothing had been settled by the time the original agreement expired in July 2015.
“He had indicated to me he felt the property was valuable,” Berman said. “That’s why the tide seemed to turn.”
Between 2010-2013, the co-op invested grant funding to stabilize the building, which had major portions of its roof leaking and collapsing.
In 2013, it was deemed safe and secure, according to Berman.
Conflict over work done
Berman said O’Connor did irreparable damage to the facility when he renovated it for use as part of a private storage business.
“We still thought there was hope until we saw the building,” Berman said. “We realized the brick was destroyed, the rust was not removed and the concrete did not match.”
The legal opinion from Lindsay’s Whitford and Nagel Associates states it is unlikely a lawsuit based on breach of contract would succeed, given the previous agreement expired in 2015 and lacked in some details.
However, the opinion said a case for unjust enrichment would have more merit.
“As a result of the actions by DIPC (Donald Innovation Project Collaborative), the owner has benefited in that the building is now structurally safe and secure which should result in a direct increase in property value,” Garth Lee Whitford wrote. “The court would be sympathetic to your plight and would not want the owner to benefit from public funds that were intended for an entirely different purpose.”
None of the claims made by Berman or Whitford have been tested in court. HHOA president Eric Christensen said they are trusting Berman to handle the situation.
“We are very disappointed that the owner has gone back on his verbal and written agreements.,” Christensen said.
ACO chief operating officer William Coukell said although they still support the co-op, they have “not had any direct connection to this particular site in a long time.”
But any legal effort against O’Connor will need consultation with stakeholders, Berman said. She added a new public fundraising campaign would be necessary to pay for it.
“This is too important a building to give up hope on. I wouldn’t still be here if this building wasn’t that important,” she said.