Ghost buildings on Stephenville ‘base’ start to vanish

Seventy-year-old Base Harmon buildings in Stephenville may have outlived their usefulness. This week demolition began on one of them. Could there be any future for the the remaining derelicts?

Abandoned Stephenville arena under demolition - photo by Don Kettle

by Don Kettle

The locals still call it “the base.” It’s that part of town that used to be Ernest Harmon Air Force Base, which was built by the Americans in a deal with Britain known as  the “Destroyers for Bases Agreement” in 1941. It was a little before Newfoundland entered Confederation; it was a time that the British needed naval reinforcements to fight the Nazi U-boats. It seemed like a good deal.

Stephenville certainly prospered during the base days. After the Second World War, the Cold War kept the base going. American service people spending then-solid Yankee greenbacks was a boon to business. As the base grew, so did the town. Housing was big business, as more and more space was need for servicemen and their families, even off-base.

By 1966, the Cold War was beginning to thaw and the focus of the American military turned to Vietnam. The Pentagon ordered Harmon closed and the assets were turned over the Canadian federal government who, in turn, transferred them to the province of Newfoundland.

Making use of base buildings

The Department of Transportation and Public Works sold off some of the buildings, many of which have been rejuvenated under private ownership. Public Works still owns and maintains some operational buildings, like the building now housing the College of the North Atlantic’s Bay St. George campus and headquarters. This building and the old Harmon High School (now the L.A. Bown building) on Washington Drive, were the newest of the buildings at the time the base closed, having been built in the mid-fifties and mid-sixties, respectively. There is still some life in these sites, as is evidenced by the constant flow of students during the academic year.

Bay St. George Campus, College of the North Atlantic, HQ - photo by Don Kettle

One of the buildings, an old hangar at the airport, was taken over by the Town of Stephenville and converted into an ice arena. The Stephenville Gardens was operated for skating activities and had long been the home of the Stephenville Jets hockey team. In 1999, the town built a new facility and the old “Gardens” was closed and left to deteriorate. This past Monday, the demolition crews moved in. The property has long been up for sale and remains on the market. Since it was originally a hanger and is right at the airport, it might have made a great hub location for a courier company or some other air transport-related operation. But this was not to be. At least not yet. Who knows, with the old building gone, someone might find a new use for the location.

Another building, an old barracks building across from the college, was acquired by the town when the Department of Justice relocated the female correctional facility to Clarenville in 1982. Town manager, Barry Coates says the College of the North Atlantic is interested in the building. He also said there are other interested parties but could not elaborate on who they are. Lorne Park, facilities manager for CNA said the college once had an interest in the building but a feasibility study in 2008-2009 changed their minds. “We haven’t been pursuing that building for quite some time,” he said. Instead, the college has an ongoing application before the provincial government to construct an addition to the property it currently uses. For almost-30 years the prison building has been idle, and now shows further signs of neglect, decay and wear from the elements.

 What happens next?

Former women's correctional centre - photo by Don Kettle

The question is easier asked than answered. According to Coates, the town seems to be holding out hope that an interested party will come forward with a viable proposal for the building. “We’re not going to lose money on a deal,” he said. “Any lease negotiation will provide for us to recoup costs for renovations. It’s still a valuable property.” Coates says the building has had the necessary asbestos abatement done and leaded paints have been eliminated. But from the visible exterior state of the building, one has to wonder if a good proposal will come in time to prevent the demolition squad.

As for the other two buildings at the prison site, they remain the property of public works. Both have been boarded up for at least as long as the female correction centre has been closed, but some of the boards have either blown away or been removed, exposing open or broken windows to then environment. One building has had basement windows removed, which could be a sign of intrusion and could also be a hazard to children who might become curious about the building and attempt to enter.

The Troubadour has made a request to speak to Tom Hedderson, minister of Transportation and Public Works. He was traveling at the time of this publication, and we hope to follow up with him to explore any plans the province may have for the remaining ghost buildings of Stephenville.

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30@30 – Dec. 3, 2014

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