A family of entrepreneurs has repurposed the River John School with the help and support of their neighbours
In 2015, residents of River John were shaken when the regional school board decided to shutter their school in the name of further consolidation. Concerted attempts by community members failed to reverse the ruling. When the doors were finally closed, it marked the first time in over 200 years that River John had no school of its own.
As in many coastal communities, the people of River John are proud of their heritage. River John was once home to a bustling shipbuilding industry — it’s still a major part of the community’s identity, although those days are long gone.
The River John Consolidated School was built in 1968 — the result of amalgamating a number of small schoolhouses in smaller communities.
Following its closure almost half a century later, a group of residents tried to turn the building into a community centre. The local municipality leased the building for $1 and even pledged to cover some electricity and maintenance costs. But in the end, the cost proved too much and the building was condemned.
As news of the pending demolition spread, some residents began looking for ways to save it, notably the Bigney family — Leonard, his wife Shelly and son Nicholas (Nick). The Bigneys were out fishing the waters of the Northumberland Strait — the family business — when one of them joked that maybe they should buy the building.
It didn’t seem like such a dumb idea. After much consideration, Nick Bigney purchased the old school for $1 in 2018. The sale saved the municipality the cost of demolition. It also saved the people of River John the heartache of seeing the building destroyed.
The building may have come cheap, but Nick and his family had their work cut out for them if they were going to turn it into a viable and usable space. There were insurance bills to be paid, grounds to be maintained, renovations to be made, and the roof was in dire need of repair. The first order of business was getting the very leaky roof fixed — a task that proved difficult, with a number of false starts and problems. Eventually, the repairs were completed by a reputable company.
With a strong roof over their heads, it was time to generate some revenue. Storage space at the facility was rented for things like antique cars and boats. The old school became the site of the annual Bikers Down Society rally. A farmer’s market operated on weekends. The school gymnasium was converted into a much-needed indoor facility for off-season maintenance of fishing boats.
Momentum was building. Then, like so many other activities in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on hold. But the Bigneys and the people of River John persevered. In 2023, life has again returned to the old River John school building. Nick’s sister Bobbi has opened a gym and there will soon be a karate dojo on the premises.
Determination and community spirit have played a huge role in the transformation of the old River John School. That community spirit was on full display at a recent potluck supper held in what was once the school’s library. The potluck was a fundraiser for a family who tragically lost their home by fire — a home that was coincidentally one of the schoolhouses that closed when River John Consolidated was built.
At the supper, the Bigneys were busy — organizing food donations, setting up, cleaning up, and taking the time to chat with neighbours and members of the community. This repurposed school has become a part of their home, a community gathering place and a focal point for the community of River John.
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