Like hundreds of small towns in Ontario, Markdale got the bad news from the provincial government last year: Its elementary school would have to close, a victim of cost-cutting.
Then an unlikely savior came through: Chapman’s Ice Cream, a homegrown business that offered two million Canadian dollars to keep the town’s children in the local Beavercrest Community School rather than on buses to other places.
If all works out, the offer will protect Markdale, population 1,400, from becoming another victim of rural depopulation — because without an elementary school, a town slowly withers.
“It’s not like living in Toronto where, O.K., they close a school but two blocks away there’s another,” said Fraser Murray, 56, who runs a printing shop in town with his wife, Sharon, and who himself attended Beavercrest, as did their two grown sons. “You’ve got to have young families to keep the community going, and if you pull the school out of here, they’re not going to stay.”
Finding a way to blend Chapman’s private-sector money into a public school system, however, has proved less than easy and involved leaps in political and bureaucratic thinking.
Markdale is one of many towns along Highway 10 between Toronto and the sandy beaches of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway, now a gravel bike path, gave Markdale its first big boost by linking it to the provincial capital about 100 miles to the southeast during the 19th century. Then Highway 10 sustained the town. But there is now little to encourage beachgoers from the big city to take a break here aside from an attractive cafe and restaurant in the town’s old fire hall.
“It’s still a little bit of old Ontario,” said Ron Motz, a farmer who is chairman of the area’s board of education. “It’s more rural, it’s a little bit quieter, some people would say a little less progressive.”
While Markdale has lost some employers in recent years, Chapman’s is the stuff of small town dreams. A sign at the end of the street leading to its complex urges passers-by to stop in and apply for work.
The company is, by local standards, a newcomer. In 1973, David and Penny Chapman were working at a small Toronto ice cream maker when they decided to get into the business themselves. That required access to a milk supply, which was limited under Canada’s tightly controlled dairy system. And the Maypole Dairy in Markdale had milk for sale at a reasonable price.
By focusing on niche products like house brands for supermarkets, Chapman’s became Canada’s largest ice cream maker by volume. Then almost eight years ago, fire leveled the plant. And that was nearly the end of Chapman’s in Markdale.
Other cities and towns offered tax deals and other incentives to rebuild. But Ashley Chapman, 38, who now runs the company with his parents, said moving was never an option.
“This town made us who we are,” Mr. Chapman said in his office at the rebuilt plant. “It was too hard a thing to wrap your head around — moving to a different place.”
The town’s identity is also closely linked to its elementary school. Clad in yellow brick and almost 50 years old, Beavercrest is no architectural landmark. Mr. Motz, the school trustee, said it had been placed on the death list because it had fallen below the province’s minimum levels for capacity and needed repairs.
Tara Moncton, whose three children attended Beavercrest, was back at the school in late May to pick up her grandson. Like many people in Markdale, she said the idea of closing it was “ridiculous” and “devastating.”
“I just think it would end up as a ghost town starting with the school,” she said.
The closing of the school would have come just as the town was starting to attract new residents.
Toronto’s hyperactive real estate market is being felt in Markdale. Jennifer and Robert Bechan moved from a distant Toronto suburb to a house down the street from Beavercrest just over a year ago. Ms. Bechan said her new home cost about a third the price of a comparable house in suburban Toronto.
“They’re coming big time, families are going to come up here,” said Ms. Bechan, whose 10-year-old daughter, Trinity, attends Beavercrest. But, she added, that hinges on the school’s remaining open.
At least two developers are looking for approval on housing projects that, if they go forward, would be Markdale’s first large additions since the 1970s.
When the younger Mr. Chapman, who also went to Beavercrest, along with his sister, first heard stories last summer that the school would be closed, he dismissed them. Partly that was because he was distracted by work issues like the future of tiger tail ice cream (orange with a licorice swirl).
“Small towns and what they are with their rumor mills — you take everything with a grain of salt,” he said.
But he realized that without a school, he would have trouble attracting the 300 additional workers he needs for a planned expansion of his business, which already employs about 700. Mr. Chapman prefers that employees live in or near Markdale because the winter snowstorms off Lake Huron frequently close Highway 10, which is mostly two lanes, cutting off commuters.
Mr. Chapman first offered to build a new school and lease it to the board of education for a token sum. The board rejected that idea as privatization. Then he offered to give cash, he said, but the board “walked away from that,” too.
But the unusual offer made Markdale’s school problem the focus of attention across the province. The minister of education came up from Toronto for a public meeting. Instead of talking about the need to close schools, she talked about turning them into “community hubs” that would provide a number of services and share costs.
Now Mr. Chapman’s offer has been matched by a real estate developer. Early in the summer, the board submitted a plan using the hub model to the province for approval.
Mr. Chapman, like many in town, expects the plan to be passed. And he hopes the town’s experience has reset how the government thinks about rural schools.
“I don’t really care how they spend my money,” he said, “as long as they spend it on this community, this school.”