In an twist of irony, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/SEEPO) has bought the historic Leslie M. Frost Natural Resource Centre in Haliburton County for $3.2 million.
The Ontario government — which had used the centre in the past to train government staff, including many OPSEU members, before closing it in 2004 — put the property up for sale in October with an asking price of $1.1 million.
“The property is an absolute gem,” states OPSEU president Smokey Thomas in an announcement on Friday (January 8) from the union, which represents 170,000 public sector workers.
“From training forest rangers in the 1920s to training our members and leaders in the 2020s, this property will serve OPSEU/SEEPO’s hardworking members so that they can continue to support our province, its people, and its economy.”
OPSEU states the $3.2 million purchase price was approved earlier this week by the OPSEU’s executive board. It is unknown whether there were competing offers on the property that resulted in the purchase price being $2.1 million over asking.
According to OPSEU first vice-president and treasurer Eddy Almeida, preserving the integrity of the site is of “utmost importance” to the union.
“We’ve got a huge opportunity but also a real duty here,” he says. “A duty to preserve the property’s integrity, respect the environment, and be good to neighbours working closely with the rural community in Haliburton County.”
“We look forward to joining with our community partners to reinvigorate the Frost Centre,” Almeida adds. “We know the centre’s impressive history and its true value, and we’re committed to breathing new life and purpose into this property, to serve our members and the broader community at large.”
The 40.63-acre property, which was sold “as is”, has 1,480 feet frontage along Highway 35 and 2,800 feet of shore line on St. Nora Lake. It includes 21 buildings that can accommodate more than 200 people in a mix of dorm-style rooms and cottages, a full kitchen, dining, hall, and recreation centre.
The buildings are in poor condition as they haven’t been maintained for the past 10 years. There are multiple easements on the property, including for access to a public dock and boat launch.
Commonly called the Frost Centre, it first opened in 1921 as a training facility for provincial forest rangers. In 1944, the Ontario government and the University of Toronto Faculty of Forestry entered into a partnership to create the Ontario Forest Technical Training School on the site.
In 1974, then-Premier Bill Davis announced the site would be developed as an environmental and resource management education centre and would be called The Leslie M. Frost Natural Resources Centre, after the province’s 16th premier. It was used as a training centre for government staff, as well as by school groups, wildlife organizations, eco-tourism groups, and more.
In 2004, the Liberal government of the time announced it was closing the centre to save around $1.2 million in annual operating costs, including laying off OPSEU members who were working at the centre, prompting public outrage. More than 26,000 people had visited the centre in its last year of operation.
The centre closed on July 13, 2004. In response to the controversy around closing the centre, the government announced it would lease the property for “environmental and outdoor education activities” rather than sell it.
Led by area cottager and former IBM executive Al Aubry, the not-for-profit Frost Centre Institute was established on the property in 2007, where it offered an educational summer camp, a conference centre, and environmental programming.
The Frost Centre Institute closed in 2010, after operating a deficit for three years, largely due to high expenses during the winter months when the centre was hardly used.
The Ontario government then put the property up for sale, but was unsuccessful in selling it. The government has been paying for basic maintenance of the property ever since.