Mulgrave and Area Revitalization Association (MARA) chair Brian Keeping (left) and Mulgrave Mayor Ron Chisholm are pictured with the painting they received for winning the Mayflower Community Cooperation Award.

MULGRAVE: A community group from the town has won a prestigious provincial award.

The Mulgrave and Area Revitalization Association (MARA) is this year’s recipient of the Mayflower Community Cooperation Award from Recreation Nova Scotia. The group was nominated by staff with the Municipality of the District of Guysborough.

According to Recreation Nova Scotia, this award recognizes the successful collaboration of communities or municipalities in the development of new programs, policies, services, or activities that result in “healthier futures.”

MARA Chair Brian Keeping said the main reason for the award was the group’s ability to make use of the former Mulgrave Memorial Education Centre building which was divested to the Town of Mulgrave at the end of the 2017-2018 year school from the former Strait Regional School board.

At that time, current Mulgrave Mayor Ron Chisholm said the school was considered to be a major liability for the town.

“It was a big burden when we took this on,” he recalled. “I was on council at the time, and as a councillor, we looked awful hard and said, ‘how are we going to make this sustainable?’

To assist in repurposing the facility, Chisholm recounted that it was decided that a working group (MARA) be formed.

“It was empty when it got handed over to us so we formed a group trying to find things we could do with it, usages; how we were going to save it,” Keeping recalled. “It’s incredible to think how far we’ve come in such a short time.”

Town staff and MARA then set out to develop the structure into a productive asset, Keeping noted.

“This was initial goal, and I think we set a four year date to have this building up and running, and fully sustainable, and we’ve got it in pretty much three years,” said Chisholm.

Over the last few years, Keeping said the town has moved its offices into the school.

“We decided the best thing to do was put your money where your mouth is, and put ourselves in as a tenant and we rolled from there,” Chisholm recalled. “It’s been one classroom at a time, a rental here, a rental there.”

After reviewing the electric and fuel bills from the school board, Chisholm said the town estimated it would cost in the vicinity of $80,000 per year just to run the building. He said one big help in cutting costs was the town’s decision to adopt a suggestion from MARA to use biofuel to heat the structure which cut those bills in half.

Keeping said the gymnasium now hosts many activities such as basketball, pickleball, volleyball, and fitness classes; the centre hosts training and professional development events for local businesses and organizations; and the building was home to a small volunteer run café, The Front Porch.

Keeping said the former school houses a fitness centre which occupies two full classrooms; a weight room and a cardio room, which opened last month.

“And our rec programs are run out of here too, with the gymnasium,” Keeping pointed out.

Most recently, Keeping said Autism Nova Scotia moved their office and program space into the facility. A partnership with Autism NS and Mulgrave’s Recreation Department allowed them to run a “very successful” summer program and will continue to partner on programming on a yearly basis, he said.

This past July, Keeping said the local office of the Community Business Development Corporation (CBDC) moved into the facility, taking up 15 offices and a board room, which occupy a significant portion of the building and becoming an anchor tenant.

“It’s a major, major operation and there as busy as can be so that’s phenomenal,” the mayor stated.

As well many of the vacant classrooms have been turned into rental space for dry storage, small offices have been refinished, and another classroom has been reserved for monthly training sessions, Keeping said.

Seniors programs, fundraisers, concerts, and a market were all held at the former MMEC, Keeping stated.

“We’ve got CBDC who has just moved in here on an eight-year lease, upstairs, the town is kind of the anchor tenant here, they moved their operations here, we’ve got Autism Nova Scotia upstairs, we’ve got St. John’s Ambulance in here pretty well every week doing training, we had a café operating out of here, and we did have interest before COVID come for some of that,” Keeping said. “We’ve got storage going on with the Strait Regional Centre for Education; we’re doing storage for them and DSM. They also do professional development here, both of them. There’s training going on right now, for DSM, up in the gym they’re using.”

The mayor said one of the reasons for this success was that the pandemic forced people, groups, and businesses to look for space.

“Everybody needed space, even to do training, they needed so much more space,” Keeping said. “We even had jury selection here because they didn’t have the room to do it.”

As for MARA, Keeping said they sponsored the Biz Kids program and funded the school supplies program. They also helped out the food bank and donated to the cenotaph project, he noted. He said they are looking at planning events around the town’s 100th anniversary in 2023.

“We’re taking new ideas from members to see what projects we do next,” he said.

The mayor added that MARA now has 12 members, is involved with a town beautification project and is looking at future projects like waterfront development.

“Last meeting we decided the school is off the list and move on to something else,” he added. “Everybody has an idea, and no idea is too big or too small.”