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Steal of a deal? Contest launched to give away old Yarmouth jail for free

The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
YARMOUTH, N.S. —

As a teenager growing up in Yarmouth, Mandy Rennehan passed the old Yarmouth jail on Main Street nearly every day. She was fascinated by its presence.

For someone who had never even received a speeding ticket in her life, she recalls the day, as an adult, when she got to tour the inside of the jail, whose construction was completed in 1865 – the same year prisoners started to be housed here.

She was mesmerized.

“It was like walking back in time from a movie in Scotland or Ireland with all the painted steel doors and small cells and rounded brick ceiling hollows,” she remembers.

The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

On that day seven years ago, Rennehan decided a tour of the jail wasn’t enough. She wanted – correction, she needed – to own the jail. She made an offer that day on the building that was for sale and listed on the market for about $60,000.

What excited her most? It was the thought of new possibilities for the old, empty, granite and brick structure.

When the Southwest Nova Scotia Correctional Centre had opened in Yarmouth in 2004 to replace this jail, by then – from a corrections standpoint – the building’s usefulness as a jail had long surpassed its best-before date. But some 10 years after that Rennehan felt the building still had a lot of life left to offer.

For what specifically, she wasn’t sure.

And she still isn’t quite sure, but she is certain that someone is.

And so, if you’ve got an idea and are interested in an old historic jail then Mandy Rennehan has a steal of a deal for you.

She is giving the jail away for free.

Get into jail free card

Rennehan has launched a contest to give away the jail to an entrepreneur from somewhere in North America who has a vision for it. The contest launched on June 30 and runs to Aug. 14.

Rennehan – who is considered a rock star entrepreneur, along with being a champion of the trades and blue-collar careers – says entrepreneurship remains the heartbeat of local economies. And even amidst these unprecedented COVID pandemic times, she is looking to ignite and bring back hope to places like her hometown of Yarmouth.

Rennehan – the CEO and founder of Freshco (FYI: Not the grocery store) – says the individual or company with the best business application will get the ​original keys to the jail and take over ownership.

Mandy Rennehan grew up in Yarmouth, N.S. She's passionate about the skilled trades and also believes that entrepreneurship is the heartbeat of local economies. CONTRIBUTED
Mandy Rennehan grew up in Yarmouth, N.S. She's passionate about the skilled trades and also believes that entrepreneurship is the heartbeat of local economies. CONTRIBUTED

Rennehan is looking for someone to revitalize, redefine and re-imagine the space into something positive and progressive.

Oddly enough, the description of who she is looking for sounds very much like Rennehan herself. So, she is asked, why not just keep the jail and turn it into something herself?

It’s a great question, she says.

“Since I bought the jail seven years ago a lot has shifted since then to (my) proprietary projects like being the Blue-Collar CEO and one of the biggest ambassadors of the industry; taking the women in the industry from four to 40 per cent while redefining the collar blue and changing the answer to ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” she says.

Philanthropy and giving back has, and will always be, at the center of Rennehan’s soul. But she recognizes her limitations. She calls this the time “to pass the baton to another amazing capable human being of my talent, or even better, to do something spectacular with this property.”

The interior of the old Yarmouth jail. CONTRIBUTED
The interior of the old Yarmouth jail. CONTRIBUTED
The interior of the old Yarmouth jail. CONTRIBUTED
The interior of the old Yarmouth jail. CONTRIBUTED

Old jail, new life?

Back in its heyday of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Yarmouth jail had always been considered “among the best kept” jails in the province. A 1901 jail inspection proclaimed it to be the finest jailhouse in Nova Scotia. The building contained quarters for the jailer and their family. It contained 19 cells, although, of course, luxury was never part of the bargain. Each cell had an iron bedstead affixed to the wall, with a straw mattress, pillow, and blanket, but no bedsheets. 

A year or so after she bought the jail Rennehan had the tall fence – which she affectionately referred to as ‘ole ugly' – removed from the outside of the property. Without the distraction of the ugly fence, she felt the architecture of the property could stand out even more.

Rennehan tossed some ideas for the property back and forth over the years. She once toyed with turning the old jail into a restaurant and performance centre – a little jailhouse rock, perhaps? The various ideas, she admitted at the time, would be very costly given the renovations that would be required. 

More recently, she had talked about turning the old jail into a home base for a masters program of craftsmanship, perhaps in partnership with NSCC. But she says the timing of that didn’t work out for the community college.

And so now she’s turned to this 'I’ve-got-a-jail-to-give-you' option instead, hoping someone will infuse something new into her hometown. 

The interior of the old Yarmouth jail. CONTRIBUTED
The interior of the old Yarmouth jail. CONTRIBUTED
The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

Contest underway

A website – www.jailforfree – has been set up and went live on June 30, outlining the criteria for the contest and providing history and information about the jail. To have a shot at getting the jail for free, contest applicants must submit a video proposal with a supporting 250-word essay about their vision and idea for the property.

Finalists will be invited for a walkthrough (virtual or in-person following health and safety guidelines) of the jail.

Whoever is handed the keys must be able to start their project within 36 months of receiving the jail. The property is assessed at about $82,000 to $84,000, according to information on the website. The current zoning of the property allows for a multitude of uses. The taxes run about $2,400.

Yarmouth-born Mandy Rennehan is the founder and CEO of Freshco Inc., an Ontario-based company that specializes in retail maintenance. She is passionate about the skilled trades. CONTRIBUTED
Yarmouth-born Mandy Rennehan is the founder and CEO of Freshco Inc., an Ontario-based company that specializes in retail maintenance. She is passionate about the skilled trades. CONTRIBUTED

Personality, ambition, and vision are definitely assets Rennehan (who goes by the nickname Bear) hopes this contest will tap into – characteristics that Rennehan with her tell-it-like-it-is demeanour has lived by her entire life, both when she grew up in Yarmouth and after she left as a teenager.

She founded the company Freshco (again, not the grocery store) in 1995 – a leading retail facilities company that looks after maintenance, refresh, and construction needs. The company’s website says they’re often referred to as the plastic surgeons of facilities. Need a facelift? You’ve come to the right place it proclaims.

Rennehan doesn't forget or let go of her roots. Years ago she surprised the local Prince Charles 4-H club in Yarmouth County with a sizeable donation. While she’s surrounded by the tools of her trade and business daily, she said at the time there are also tools that help a person become an entrepreneur: common sense, confidence, and drive – “Three of which I had from a young age, but they needed channeling and mentoring,” she said, which she got from 4-H.

Above all, Rennehan is beyond passionate about the trades and redefining the ‘blue’ collar – whether it’s to up the ante when it comes to the profile and importance of trades careers, or to solve a massive skilled trade shortage in North America.

Rennehan is a lead advisor on a federal government national campaign encouraging apprenticeships and promoting the skilled trades as a career.

As her freebie-jail contest website points out, she continues to challenge the misconception that white-collar jobs are “better” or “more desirable” than blue-collar ones.

Society, she says, need both collars.

For her work throughout the years Rennehan has picked up a lot of hardware, in addition to her hammers and toolbelts. They include, among others: Canada’s Most Admired CEO; Atlantic Business Magazine’s Top CEO for the Atlantic Provinces; Toronto Region Board of Trade Business Leader of the Year; Top 25 Women of Influence; The RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur “Momentum” Award; (WXN’s) Top 100 Most Powerful Women – Hall of Fame; CGLCC LGBT Business of the Year and Atlantic Business Magazine’s Top 50 CEOs.

But for Rennehan it’s not about the accolades.

It’s always about rolling up your sleeves and getting ‘er done.

The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The old Yarmouth jail in Yarmouth. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

Cool and spooky

Asked if during a pandemic is the right time for someone to tackle a project of this scope, Rennehan says she’s very hopeful that someone out there is up to the challenge.

“Twelve years ago I started my transition into the U.S. for Freshco.ca in the middle of the housing crisis and my first three years exceeded our projections, as we found better creative ways for our clients, which was better for the economy,” she says. “When convenience evaporates in a climate like the one we are in now, people start looking much more deeply at what do they want to be doing for the next 20 years?”

She wants to encourage them to put Yarmouth on their list, with its clean air, great people, and a good seaside way of life.

Besides, they may not even have to do this alone.

One of the coolest features of the jail, Rennehan once said in an interview, is it’s “freaking spooky.”

There’s always been rumours or speculation that the jail may be haunted.

The most infamous death to take place at the jail was that of Omar Roberts of Kemptville, Yarmouth County, in 1922. Roberts, 68, was tried and convicted of killing his maid Flora Gray, 19, whom he was infatuated with. He was hanged at the courtyard of the jail. It’s not the only death to have occurred at the jail.

/media/photologue/photos/cache/YSS-30062020-jail-inside-3_large.jpg
/media/photologue/photos/cache/YSS-30062020-jail-inside-3_large.jpg
The old Yarmouth jail. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The old Yarmouth jail. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

Ghost or partner?

When Rennehan bought the jail seven years ago, not only did the rumours that the jail may be haunted not deter her, they excited her.

“The more spirits the better for me. It keeps things interesting,” she said in a 2014 interview, adding if any of those spirits showed up she’d gladly hand them a jigsaw.

Asked now what she still sees at the most interesting feature of the jail, hands down, she says, it’s that the main floor and many corbels on the building are built with Nova Scotia granite. She calls it surreal that they have the original keys.

“The spookiest part, in my opinion, is the third floor of the structure that looks over the harbour has a very unsettling feeling,” she adds. “It was like you could hear voices and see the fog rolling in from the harbor under candlelight back in the mid-1800s.”


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