Historic Harriston post office to become business, arts hub

The former post office building here is under new ownership and plans to turn it into a business and arts hub are already underway.

The historic building, last utilized as a mail outlet in the mid-1980s, was recently purchased by Michael Hendrick and his wife, Sue, of Harriston.

Hendrick, is currently on a temporary leave from his position as a teacher at Norwell District Secondary School. After completing a few projects around home, he explains, he was approached by Steven Godfrey, of Kitchener-based Small Spaces Design Studio, about the idea of renovating the Harriston landmark.

Godfrey has been involved with several restoration and revitalization projects in the region, including Kitchener’s Tannery District, so his interest in the project got Hendrick’s attention.

“So he asked me to come on board and I loved it. I love the idea of taking historical buildings, pre-1920 and changing the fit, re-purposing them into commercial structures or whatever,” he told the Advertiser.

As this is the first such endeavour for Hendrick, he said it’s important to have an experienced project manager on board.

“I lean on Steven Godfrey for direction and guidance and I provide the money and a little bit of support … but he’s carried the ball on this.”

Plans for the building include professional spaces on the main floor and second storey.

Though work on the building just got underway in late October, Hendrick said he’s already had expressions of interest from an engineering firm, an architect and a graphic artist about renting second-floor space.

Plans for the basement level include a recording studio and a co-op style art gallery. Godfrey and Hendrick said they have had discussions with both local artists and the Minto Arts Council and feel the prospects for both projects are solid.

Godfrey stated 12 per cent of local residents “identify themselves as part of the arts community,” which he said is among the highest rates in Canada. He also noted a number of area musicians are currently utilizing recording facilities in cities around the region and he anticipates many would take advantage of facilities closer to home.

Hendrick said the Town of Minto and its economic development staff have played a major role in getting the project off the ground.

“They’ve been remarkably supportive. I think without their support we would have to reconfigure this rebuild entirely – it would be a different story,” he explained. “It would take us five or six years, funding would be a much more challenging issue. They direct us, they coach us in terms of what we might do to get grants or get accessory funding, so we’ve been delighted.”

He added, “We’re all committed to changing the character of this building and returning it to the sort of novel and unique sort of setting it had in Harriston, so I’d say they are as committed as we are.”

Hendrick notes local residents are also supportive of the project and many have been stopping by to share memories or express their enthusiasm for the renovation project.

Godfrey said the town wants the building to tie into other historical structures in the downtown, such as the Carnegie library and Town Hall Theatre, and “having all three buildings have a symbiotic relationship.”

At the Nov. 3 Minto council meeting, economic and business manager Belinda Wick-Graham called the post office building sale “the most exciting thing that’s happening in Harriston right now.”

She said, “It’s right up our alley in terms of our vision for Minto and the creative community.”

While optimistic, Godfrey and Hendrick recognize the building does present some challenges.

“It’s a building that was built in 1912 and it’s been added onto but never rectified,” said Godfrey. “None of the issues regarding heat loss, nothing was ever dealt with.” Already under way is the replacement of the building’s ancient boiler system with a forced air gas furnace system.

On the plus side, notes Godfrey, “The building is a  triple brick building. The bones of the building are so solid.

“There’s no damage to the main structure itself, even though it had been without power and heat through a good chunk of last winter and I’m not sure (how long) before that as well.”

The project will be completed in stages and Godfrey said construction will be “ongoing for a couple of years.”

However, Hendrick said the primary construction will be done by next spring. He expects the first tenants will be moving in by January.

While the project is being undertaken with private capital and grant funding, the owners are planning to do some fundraising, possibly even  a crowdfunding campaign, to raise money to restore the clock and tower at the building’s peak.

Godfrey said the four-sided clock still has the original hands in place and will be restored using the existing mechanism. A bell located just outside the clock tower will also be restored to operating condition.

For those looking for a sneak peek, the building will be among the stops on the Harriston Curling Club’s eighth annual Christmas Rocks House Tour on Dec. 5.  Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at Harriston Home Hardware, the curling club or by calling 519-338-3433.