In Feb. 2007 I wrote a piece for R-Town on “The Heritage Value of Fort Sanatorium”. Later that year the Village of Fort San designated the main sanatorium buildings as “heritage” and in 2009 the Village adopted an Official Community Plan making these buildings part of a new resort Village Centre. It was a ground-breaking vision of a sustainable community.
People throughout Saskatchewan have a stake in preserving the historic Fort San site, and there’s much to learn about the politics of heritage from what’s happening with this provincial landmark. So it’s time for an update.
Fort San has a proud history of public service. Built in 1912, it housed TB patients for 50 years. At its peak it had 358 beds, a school, nurse’s residence and a post office, a self-contained village tucked into the coulees. After the PA sanatorium closed in 1961, Fort San was the last of three in the province.
In 1967 the vital connection with the provincial arts community began; with fewer patients, unused space went to the Qu’Appelle School of the Arts. Closed as a sanatorium in 1971, Fort San became home to the nationally-renowned Summer School of the Arts through the 80’s. It then became the Echo Valley Conference Centre, another hub of province-wide gatherings. In 1992, Sask Property Management (SPM) contracted out its use for cadet training.
Grant Devine tried to privatize Fort San near the end of his term, but Romanow’s NDP reversed this. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money was spent to upgrade the facilities. However, though the cadets wanted a long-term lease and the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour proposed taking it over as a Labour College, in 2004, without any consultation with the people of the Village, Calvert’s NDP closed down the facility.
In the Legislature Calvert commented that the closing, “…does not necessarily mean that a wrecking ball comes to take down the facilities…” At the time the replacement value of the buildings was considered to be over $15 million while demolition costs were considered $1.3 million.
The SPM circulated its Standard Disposal Policy and the Village passed a resolution expressing interest in taking over the property in partnership with SanEcho developers. The Village was told it had the only proposal on the table just prior to the May 31, 2005 deadline. Then, without the Village being informed why its proposal was rejected, the SPM announced that the Town of Fort Qu’Appelle proposal with Mitchell-Echo developers had been accepted.
The SPM process was sloppy and misleading. For months after the Town-fronted proposal was accepted, government officials talked as if the Village was aware and involved with this, which it wasn’t.
The Village continued to be left in the dark about plans for the 184 acre property in its jurisdiction. In June 2006 a Village ratepayers meeting passed a motion that the Fort San beach remain accessible to the public, and not be cherry-picked by the private developers. At an August special ratepayers’ meeting no details on a re-use plan were forthcoming and a motion was unanimously carried to set up a Village Advisory Committee to investigate beach access, traffic, environmental impact, heritage protection and more. After widespread research and public consultation the Advisory Committee submitted its report “On The Redevelopment of Fort Sanatorium Property” in May 2007. Soon after, the Village hired a planner to work on an official plan.
The Village and wider Valley community have always supported the historic, heritage value of Fort San. The 1988 Village Planning Statement promoted “retention of Fort San as having local and provincial historical importance” and called for “detailed examination of any development proposal put forward for the property (to ensure it) is in the public interest.”
The Advisory Committee soon discovered that a Heritage Value Assessment Report (HVAR) is required when the SPM puts any public property up for sale, and that the Heritage Resources Branch had already done such an assessment on Fort San back in summer 2005. There was obviously an attempt to end-run the Village on this matter too. The report was even titled as if Fort San was within the jurisdiction of the Town of Fort Qu’Appelle, which it isn’t. The HVAR noted that the Mayor of Fort Qu’Appelle had gone public saying that “the existing buildings on the property would likely be demolished due to their deteriorating condition”, prior to the required heritage assessment being “completed or considered”.
The Village didn’t get the province’s heritage assessment until the Advisory Committee found out about it a year and a half after it was undertaken. People at the Heritage Resources Branch were both apologetic and embarrassed. Their assessment didn’t conclude that the property wasn’t worth saving; rather it noted its “high” historical significance. It said Saskatchewan’s “most prominent architects” did “excellent…organic site planning” which “unify the various buildings with the complex” and “effectively integrate the facility into the surrounding landscape” using “local building materials including stone.” It listed the buildings that “at a minimum need to be maintained (in whole or in part) in order to preserve and display the site’s essential heritage value.”
Town officials, and the private developers they turned the Fort San property over to, had access to this heritage assessment throughout the earlier period of public discussion, while the Village, intentionally or otherwise, was kept in the dark. But when the Village finally got the assessment it acted quickly and in 2007 declared the buildings as municipal heritage sites. Developers, it was thought, would now respect the heritage significance of Fort San in any re-use plans.
In 2009 the Village went on to adopt its Official Community Plan, including a section on “Heritage” that highlighted the buildings being preserved: “the original Main Lodge Building, including a portion of the West Wing; Dr. Jenner’s Residence (Good Spirit Lodge); Nurses Residence (Wood Mountain Lodge); Administrative Building and the immediate landscaping adjacent to the entrance to the Main Lodge.”
The Official Plan of the Village included the policy that, “In recognition of the former sanatorium site’s role in the history of Fort San, development in this area shall complement the character of existing buildings and landscape development…” Under “Future Land Use” it acknowledged that “community representatives have indicated a desire to incorporate the former Fort Sanatorium site as part of a broader Village Centre development”. The Official Plan approved as its No. 1 objective: “To incorporate the former sanatorium as the focal point for the development of a Village Centre to serve the broader Fort San community.”
The Plan designated the Fort San property as the “Village Centre Policy Area”. It called for “development which enhances the opportunity for increased levels of activity and interaction by community residents in the Village Centre.” There wasn’t any ambiguity about the ground-breaking vision or the intent.
This Official Plan was adopted three years ago. In the seven years since privatization the property has changed hands at least three times. The process has not been very transparent and there is still no progress on heritage redevelopment. When ClearView Developments took over ownership in 2010 the heritage protection and Official Plan were both legally in place. Yet, if you drive by the stunning historical site, you will now be confronted by metal security fences that ban public access to see what is happening to the grand heritage buildings. Grounds are unkept and rumours abound that the site has been abandoned and that the heritage buildings are being vandalized and falling into disrepair.
In Part II, I’ll explore how this pioneering heritage redevelopment project has gone so amuck and what can be done to get it back on track.