Discovery has time to save historic buildings

Visitors walk through Petrolia Discovery in 2014. Over the weekend vandals damaged several of the restored buildings at the site.

It appears the historic buildings at Petrolia Discovery will be repaired.

Last August, officials from the Town of Petrolia asked the Lambton County building inspector and experts from the Ontario Electrical Authority and the fire chief to tour the property. The town had taken over management of the site and wanted to get an idea of how much work was needed on the site.

By Sept. 21, the county had posted an Order to Remedy Unsafe buildings at the entrance to the historic site. Six buildings were deemed “unsalvageable” including the Blue House and the Marthaville Church. The site was closed to the public and the town “reluctantly” stepped away from managing the site saying the repairs would be too costly for the taxpayers to bear.

The County building inspector gave the Discovery Foundation Board until March 31st to come up with a plan.

The situation looked difficult. The foundation had been reorganizing after the death of its long-time general manager and the finances were beyond tight. Oil wells meant to generate funds to run the site had stopped pumping.

But on a sunny Friday afternoon on the porch of the Corey Building next to the Marthaville Church there are signs of life. Foundation President Dawn Sperling says the county – which has the authority to have the buildings torn down – is giving the foundation some time.

“They came out and we talked to them and said this is kind of what our plan is and they’re okay.”

“We’re demolishing a few of the buildings that are in rough shape and in the spring once it dries up we have some bridges and some walkways that need to be repaired,” she says.

They’re planning to repair walkways once they can obtain lumber for the job. The board is seeking out donations for that.

And it’s also looking for money for repairing The Blue House and the Marthaville Church. The Blue House needs a foundation, she says and the extent of the repairs needed to the church – which is designated as a heritage building – need to be determined yet.

Sperling says the foundation is working with a grant writer to access private and government foundations to find the money to start that work.

The foundation has some breathing room. The county, which has the authority to order the buildings be taken down in the name of public safety, has approved the schedule of work to be done at the site giving Sperling and the Discovery’s volunteers much needed time to raise the cash.

Part of that cash will come from the ground. Ten of the sites 20 wells are now working and producing double the amount of oil they did just a year ago. “The daily maintenance on the wells has really made a difference,” she says. “We doubled production in 2015 from 2014.”

And Sperling and the volunteers keep one eye on the price of oil, hoping that soon the increase in production will bring in more revenue. When the wells were silent, the price of crude was about $100 a barrel; now it is hovering around $40 so even with increased production, Discovery is still bring in the same amount of cash around $40,000.

This summer, Sperling says, the site will be closed for renovations. She’s not sure how long that will take. But she is feeling hopeful.

And she says the Discovery board will continue to raise money for the repairs that are needed, and will hold its annual Father’s Day Car Show again this year to help meet the sites renovation costs.