Nothing says summer like a circus under the big top

city_scope_logo-cmykThere’s no denying he’s chuffed an authentic, European-style circus will entertain at a dozen performances this summer in St. Thomas. But what really has Sean Dyke pumped is the big top tent under which it will perform.
Massive may be a more apt descriptor. The tent is 16,000 square feet in size, holds in excess 0f 2,000 in grandstand seating and 1,000 for catered events. The stage measures 1,260 square feet.
Now those are numbers the general manager over at St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation can really sink this teeth into. A tent with those dimensions shouts possibilities.
Of course the touring Canadian-Swiss Dream Circus – billed on its website as “incredible displays of acrobatic, balance, aerial stunts and thrilling acts” – will occupy the Railway City Big Top for two weekends in August, that’s a done deal.
“It’s more of a traditional European-type circus,” enthuses Dyke. “It really will feel like a circus of old without the animals. People seem to be excited it is animal free.”
The first performance will coincide with the opening of this year’s Iron Horse Festival on Aug. 17, with shows running Thursday through Sunday. The exact schedule for the following weekend has yet to be finalized, with performances likely Friday through Sunday. Tickets will go on sale some time in March.
That eye-catching tent will arrive in the city well in advance of the circus and will rise near the Elgin County Railway Museum.
big-top“Our aim is to open the tent July 15 and we’re still working on what kind of event we’re going to have to open it,” advises Dyke. “It will remain up for at least three months. But if we had events to fill it, we could keep it up longer.”
One possibility is a circus camp for youth, which tent owner Thomas Wehrli already operates during the summer at his home base in Ayr, Ontario.
“The  organizers are looking into the potential of hosting a bit of a daycamp for youth while the circus is here,” suggests Dyke. “It would be a neat opportunity for some of the daycares in town to get the kids out and do something different.
“Our purpose for doing this is to raise funds we can push back into the community for some of the tourism venues. We really struggle. The railway museum, the elevated park . . . all of those groups have a challenge raising funds. This is a real opportunity to market the city, create something new and put something here that’s different and unique.
“We’re offering the tent to any of the charities in town who may want to use it as a fundraiser. They’re obviously limited right now with the number of people they can get into spaces.”
At this point, the circus and big top tent are only booked for an appearance this summer, but an enthusiastic embrace in St. Thomas could change that, notes Dyke.

Sean Dyke with a #stthomasproud button.

“If people like it and it takes off, then it might be something we look at as a continuous thing. To keep a venue of that size in our community would be a huge advantage for us. We have lots of ideas. The discussion has gone from big-name concerts to smaller, trade-show events and conferences.”

Attracting the circus to The Railway City has been a work in progress for a couple of years, but that is only the beginning, insists Dyke.
“We’ve been losing sleep over this for about two years now thinking of how to make it work. We’ve finally got it to work so now we’ve got to see what we can do.”
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to envision Dyke decked out in authentic ringmaster fashion, beckoning crowds forward.
“Step right up, step right up. Come and see what we can do for you under the Railway City Big Top.”
We can see and hear it now, Sean!
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Fourteen years after the campaign was launched, city council will be asked Monday to sign off on the Timken Centre fundraising campaign guided by professional fundraiser Hilary Vaughan.
In 2007, the treasury department at city hall took over responsibility for following up on pledges and in a report to council in August of that year, former parks and recreation director Kent McVittie advised $2.6 million in cash or pledges were on the books, but with just $1.37 million actually collected.
If you remember the original fundraising target was $3 million.
On the expense side, more than $135,000 had been spent, a figure projected to grow to $214,000.
The final update to be presented to council by director of finance David Aristone indicates of the $2.6 million originally pledged, $324,000 has now been cancelled, leaving a pledge total of $2,264,162.
A sum of $17,100 remains outstanding and represents one pledge with the donor making monthly payments.
Curiously, no mention is made in Aristone’s report of expenses related to the fundraising campaign, a rather serious omission.
Then mayor Cliff Barwick warned of the law of diminishing returns back in 2007.
“Statistics I have,” advised Barwick, “show once you have a pledge lasting more than three years, the odds diminish quickly after that you’ll get 100 per cent of the pledge. I’m not being pessimistic, I’m just stating a fact.”
The Cox Cabs bankruptcy saga is not owner Jamie Donnelly’s first brush with controversy in St. Thomas.
donnellyjpgIn 2011, Aboutown Urban Transit Services was the transit provider in the city, with Donnelly serving as company vice-president. 
In July of that year, then city manager of operations and compliance, Edward Soldo, presented a report to council that recommended the transit contract be the subject of a tendering process, with a request for proposal (RFP) to be brought before council in September.
Soldo stressed the RFP was to be developed in such a fashion as to allow for the maintenance functions of the transit operations to be delivered based on one of two options.
Either all functions and costs are the responsibility of the transit operator, or all maintenance is completed and administered using city staff and resources.
Soldo sought to place greater responsibility for maintenance costs on the operator.
He noted in 2010, Aboutown spent approximately $230,000 on maintenance, of which $130,000 was charged to the city.
“The remaining repair work that was paid by Aboutown,” Soldo observed, “is primarily routine maintenance that could be done completely by city mechanical staff.”
And, lead to the elimination of the 10% administrative fee Aboutown was charging the city.
By a vote of 5-3 – with one current councillor opposed to the tendering proposal – council rolled forward that July and opened up the transit contract for tendering, as per Soldo’s recommendation.
Donnelly – who was in the gallery at the council chamber for the vote – had been seeking an automatic renewal of the contract for a 10-year term.
But here’s where it gets curious. Donnelly’s request to appear at the meeting was dated July 11, and yet Soldo’s report was not made public until July 14. Members of council had a copy of the document on July 8, so who leaked the information to Donnelly?
Oddly, Donnelly agreed with almost everything in Soldo’s report except the critical tendering recommendation.
That same member of council who did not vote in favour of Soldo’s recommendation had previously been a guest in the Aboutown private box in what used to the JLC in London.
And now you know the rest of the story.
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The city’s oldest traffic signal is soon to be red-lighted by a roundabout. City staff note the signal and  the road layout at the intersection of Wellington/Talbot/Sunset are “well beyond their expected life cycle” and present a “significant safety concern due to the misaligned lane configuration and lack of left turn lanes.”
The city’s 2017 capital budget outline describes the undertaking thus:
“The project presents an opportunity to create an iconic gateway to St. Thomas that matches our city brand of historical railways. It is recommended that in the centre of the gateway roundabout, an historical train engine be placed. In conjunction, it is possible to create a parking lot adjacent to the existing tourism signage as a viewing location of the gateway and also a place to conduct promotional City advertising.”
Hopefully the project comes complete with a warning for motorists to keep their eyes on the road and not the train display.
Estimated cost of the roundabout is $2.1 million, with $1.65 million of that being drawn from gas tax funding. Construction is expected to begin in April and run through August of this year.
A public open house will be held this Wednesday from 6 to 7 p.m., in room 204 at city hall.
A faithful reader with a keen interest in all things railroad wondered aloud when the former London & Port Stanley Railway line will be extended north from the replica station at Talbot Street to re-connect with the CN line to London (the continuation of the L&PS line).
railway-city-tourismjpgA call to city manager Wendell Graves shed some light on the track work.
“We’ve finally been able to connect with the appropriate folks at CN engineering and we are now working through getting some engineering drawings completed to make it happen,” advised Graves on Friday.
“The funding is in place . . . and we have to satisfy CN’s process. And our goal is to move that forward as quickly as we can.”
The actual re-laying of track about a half mile to the north is not a major undertaking and we asked Graves whether that could lead to the possibility of running tourist trains up the line to London, knowing CN is a tough negotiator.
“At this point in time, our key objective is to get that connection. We have their (CN) approval to connect, which is really important. At this point it is moving forward.”
The city is in the midst of a study to identify and evaluate heritage buildings and landscapes within the downtown area to determine the overall heritage character of the area. The goal of the study is to determine whether Talbot Street warrants designation under the Ontario Heritage Act.
heritagejpgSpeaking to City Scope on Friday, Graves indicated the study is a “a partnership with the city and the Municipal Heritage Committee and this is Round 2 of the public information session where the consultant will dive a little bit deeper into the heritage attributes we have on Talbot Street and explain that to everyone.”
In other words, the city is exploring the benefits of declaring a significant stretch of Talbot Street a heritage district.
The exact boundary area of the proposed heritage district “is still open for discussion,” according to Graves.
“It requires as much input as we can get from the stakeholders, particularly the property owners. It’s really an education piece to let everybody know the richness of the heritage within these buildings. They have interesting stories to tell.”
Graves stressed there is a lot of work to be done on this yet, but it’s critical people get engaged the process so they understand the importance of a heritage district. 
As such, the city is hosting a community consultation meeting for the Downtown St. Thomas Heritage Conservation District Area Study this Wednesday, Feb. 8 from 6 to 8 p.m., at the CASO station. Business and property owners as well as members of the public are invited to attend.
Questions and comments may be emailed toCity Scope

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