Journey to Utopia
In a world of jaded hopes and mounting cynicism, Susan Antler is an extraordinary and very energetic breath of fresh of air. Professionally, she has worked for the Composting Council of Canada since 1992 and has been the Canadian Program Director of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), since the organization was introduced in Canada in 1997. Susan also has her own environmental marketing company called Visions of Utopia.
Despite the success of all of these initiatives, it’s the latter company that gives a hint of where Susan’s true passions lie. She named her company after the small hamlet where she lives - Utopia, Ontario.
For Susan, Utopia has proven to be both a journey and a destination. During her corporate days in the 1980s, she wanted to invest in a home in the country where she could retreat on the weekends – her own little Utopia. At the end of a very long and unsuccessful search, Susan told her real estate that she would look at one more property of the agent’s choosing – as a courtesy – before giving up her quest.
This is precisely how she found herself standing in front of an old wooden sign engraved with the single word, “Utopia”. Despite the fact that she promised herself she would not get sucked in by the hamlet’s poetic name, Susan bought the house that was for sale.
At first she was simply a non-resident of the little hamlet that boasted a population of 76. Named after the novel by Thomas More, Utopia became the site of a gristmill in 1864. A year after it celebrated its 100th birthday, Bell’s Gristmill was closed in 1965. The mill, and the 50 acres of land that surrounded it, became a conservation area under the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA).
Like all good epic tales, it was at this point that disaster struck for Susan. Her corporate career ended in 1991 when she was downsized. Always the optimist, Susan pledged to make the environment her priority.
As it turned out, her decision came just in time. Within months she was fighting to save the conservation area near her beloved home from privatization. While Susan and her fellow residents won the initial battle to keep the lands public, their victory was short lived.
By 2000, the mill was falling apart and scheduled for demolition. Once again the Utopians rallied. Between fund raising, grants and other efforts, they managed raise $ 428, 000 – just enough money to restore the historic building.
Unfortunately, even this didn’t prove enough to save the mill.
During the restoration, it was discovered that a diesel fuel leak had contaminated the basement.
Undaunted, the residents offered to share the additional costs for the clean up. The project moved forward for a few months until the town decided to give up its lease on the land.
At this point, even Susan’s eternal optimism was beginning to wear a little thin.
“This is only 50 acres. What am I doing?” Susan asked herself. But then she answered her own question. “It meant something,” she said in an interview. “It went so much further than the land. Utopia represents a way of community living that is quickly disappearing.”
In a bold and strategic move, Susan and her neighbors decided to step up to the plate and asked the NVCA if they could take over the lease. They then got into a battle with the Township who declared that they wanted the land in return for the money that had already been spent on the mill’s restoration.
Both groups were allowed to pitch their vision for the land and gristmill to the full board of the NVCA.
Following the Township’s presentation Susan reviewed the costs of the renovations to this point and made a startling discovery. Despite the fact that the township had championed the management of the restoration efforts, most of the funds had come from provincial grants or the community. For the outstanding amount from Essa - $535.21 – a personal cheque was offered to wipe the debt clean.
Remarkably up until this point, the group that had fought so valiantly to save Bell’s Gristmill was just a group of local neighbors. After the NVCA decided to award the lease to the community, the “Friends of the Utopia Gristmill and Park” was officially established and efforts were renewed to restore the mill and preserve the uniqueness of the Hamlet of Utopia.
The Journey to Utopia continues in my next post, when Susan Antler and the Friends of Utopia enlist the aid of a pop superstar to help save their community’s gristmill.
For more the on efforts to restore Bell’s Gristmill, visit www.utopia.on.ca.
The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation is the only industry sponsored, voluntary recycling program in this country.
The Composting Council of Canada