"Boarded up and forgotten": Province urged to save Raymond agriculture college buildings

By Sam Borsato (@BorsatoSam on Twitter)
April 17, 2017 - 5:48am Updated: April 17, 2017 - 9:52am

RAYMOND - The former Raymond Care Centre holds an important piece of Alberta's history, and a group of concerned residents are now trying to protect it from being torn down.

Between 1910 and 1920, the Government of Alberta constructed six agricultural colleges across the province that were opened in two batches of three, according to Stewart Foss, a Raymond and District Historic Society member. The Raymond School of Agriculture (RSA) was opened in 1919 on the eastern outskirts of the small town, located about 40 kilometers southeast of Lethbridge. It served as a school for 11 years before the government was forced to close the doors.

The land that the buildings currently sit on was originally donated to the province by the Knight family, who founded the town in the early 1900s.

From 1939 to 1965, the buildings re-opened as the commonly known Raymond Mental Hospital, and were renovated again in 1988 to become a long-term care facility that was eventually taken over by Alberta Health Services (AHS). The Raymond Care Centre was closed for good in 2008 and has sat empty ever since.

"What's really interesting about this location is that it's almost completely intact. You have the original building, behind that was a blacksmith shop, and there was a greenhouse behind there. As part of the complex there was a principal's residence... and there was a barn. All of those buildings are still present on the site, with the exception of the barn," Foss explained. While he is part of the Raymond and District Historic Society, he preferred not to speak on behalf of the organization and rather as a concerned resident.

Foss added that the society still has the original building plans from back in 1919, as well as the updated ones from 1988. During the last set of renovations, wings were added to the main building to accommodate an indoor pool, gym and residences for patients living at the facility.

Raymond's Mayor, George Bohne, and other town councillors met with Sarah Hoffman, Alberta's Minister of Health, at the October 2016 Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) convention, expressing their frustration that the buildings have been left to deteriorate for close to a decade.

"We told her that the building is an eye sore... We have always said as a council that there would be lots of uses for that building. In fact, we had some uses designed for it a decade ago, but the government turned us down on being able to use it when it was still in good shape," Bohne told Lethbridge News Now.

"Our council position has always been that we would like to see the building restored, if that's at all possible. But if that is not possible, then we want the eye sore removed."

Minister Hoffman then sent a follow up letter to the Town of Raymond on January 20 stating that "Alberta Culture and Tourism is currently reviewing the main building at the Raymond Care Centre for any historical significance," and a decision should be confirmed within coming weeks.

But it wasn’t the outcome council had anticipated, Bohne said.

“[Minster Hoffman] said we (the government) have no money for any renovations, nothing is available there. But we do have money set aside in the budget to demolish the building. So when we (town council) sent a letter back to her, we did say if we can’t have the building as such and restored to a useful purpose, then let’s remove the eye sore.”

Foss says AHS recently released five studies -- from 2002 up until 2016 --  to the Historic Society, that report on the building’s overall structural condition, environmental survey and historical significance. He’s since reviewed the documents, and believes the RSA site can and should be restored.

“Interestingly enough, this building is asbestos free, which for the age of it is kind of unique. They did those evaluations in the 80s when they expanded it, and they removed what was remaining... It has some mold because there’s been some water. But structurally, they found it to be in good condition; there was no evidence of any major structural issues with it. Condition assessments found it to be -- like I said -- in fair to good condition. For a building that’s coming on 100 years, I think that’s pretty good,” Foss laughed.

A 2013 Alberta Culture and Tourism mature building assessment states, “Under the theme  of Agricultural Training School, there are no currently designated resources that are directly comparable with the Raymond Care Centre,” and that the “property does merit Provincial Historic Resource designation.”

Town council has had trouble obtaining those same documents, though. 

Feeling as though they had been kept out of the loop, Councillor Cathy Needham penned a lengthy letter to Premier Rachel Notley, expressing the same list of concerns as the group of residents after finally seeing all of the assessments herself, and requested that the RSA buildings be turned over to the community for future use. 

“I think Councillor Needham’s letter was simply saying, ‘Let’s create a level playing field here for everybody,’” Bohne continued. “Let’s have all the information, so that we all have access to exactly the same things, and we’re all making decisions based on the same research that’s been done.”

Councillor Needham and Councillor Gregory Robinson have been appointed as representatives to the Raymond and District Historic Society, and now meet with the group on a weekly basis.

Foss went on to say that a group of residents, known as the Friends of Raymond's Historic Buildings, will submit a petition with more than 190 signatures to-date to the Alberta Legislature, asking that a heritage resource impact assessment -- which he explained typically includes a statement of significance, risk of losing it, cost to rehab, feasibility and structural analysis -- be completed for the RSA site. They have plans to bring a delegation of roughly 40 people to the April 18 town council meeting, as well, to encourage council members to formally support the petition.

Mayor Bohne explained that the current council has yet to decide what to do with the premises, if they can save it from being demolished. He also believes there’s an opportunity for a private investor to take it over, or possibly a public-private partnership.

When asked what it would take to get the land back from AHS hands, Bohne said that he’s unsure what the process would fully entail.

He did confirm to Lethbridge News Now during his interview that demolition has been delayed for the time being. He says council received another letter recently that says the government is reviewing concerns from locals, and may conduct more studies into the location's historical significance.

No matter how the final decision is handled, the Town of Raymond is interested in the land, recognizing that its population is only continuing to expand.

"Locations like this are a connection to our past... There’s an ownership to these to the people who came before us. They invested their time and effort into it, and we have an obligation to previous generations to care for these things,” Foss added. “Those connections to the past are made real when we have these buildings. It’s one thing to have signage that says something used to be here, it’s a whole different thing to be able to walk into the building and experience it.”

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