With the observation, “Our assets are the strongest link to the new city branding,” a pair of St. Thomas railway-based entities are seeking an exemption from paying municipal property taxes.
Matt Janes of The Railworks Coalition – representing the Elgin County Railway Museum (ECRM), the CASO station and, in the near future, the St. Thomas Elevated Park – made a pitch to city council at Monday’s (Jan. 20) reference committee meeting requesting tax relief.
While no decision was made at the meeting, there was no shortage of questions and comments from members of council combined with a healthy dose of skepticism from several quarters.
In an email to City Scope on Tuesday, Janes outlined three objectives behind the deputation to council.
Topping the list was the need to, “Stress how important the Railworks’ assets (ECRM, CASO Station and Elevated Park) are to “The Railway City” brand, and the economic activity generated by our organizations.”
Janes noted the necessity of letting the city know “our financial picture isn’t great, and that a big reason for that is the taxes we pay to the city. (Over $30,000 for CASO and over $20,000 for ECRM per year.)”
And then the sales pitch, asking the city “for help in the form of tax exemption for the Railworks properties, based on how important they are to the economic and cultural life of the city.”
According to Janes, the two facilities contribute more than $4 million to the St. Thomas economy each year.
Anderson Hall and the Farley Waiting Room in the CASO Station host in the neighbourhood of 40 weddings each year with an average of 120 attendees at each.
In addition, there were over 100 business meetings, training sessions, private parties and other functions last year which saw over 12,000 people participate.
Only one business suite is available for rental and current tenants include MP Karen Vecchio, MPP Jeff Yurek, Ferguson & DiMeo Lawyers, Primerica Financial, Tim Sheridan Insurance, Las Chicas Del Cafe and the Ontario Ground Water Association.
Janes did admit to council that some of those rentals are below market value.
The ECRM attracts over 7,000 visitors on an annual basis and plays host to corporate and special events.
Janes stressed the need to “significantly” reduce expenses and advised this can be done by reducing or eliminating property taxes and other municipal charges.
Other cost-saving measures include the possibility of selling some of the land surrounding the museum and the integration of the museum and the CASO station to save on administration expenses.
The latter caught the attention of several councillors.
At the CASO station, administration and wages totalled over $262,000 last year while at the ECRM, the figure was $146,500.
“Just asking for property tax relief doesn’t seem enough,” noted Coun. Jeff Kohler.
“The wages and administration costs are significant.”
“Your expenses are quite high compared to what you are bringing in,” added Coun. Joan Rymal.
The ECRM generated $215,500 in revenue last year while the CASO station brought in $350,000.
“This is a very difficult situation and makes fundraising from donors difficult.”
“This could start a precedent,” cautioned Coun. Jim Herbert. “Tax relief is not going to eliminate your problem.”
Mayor Joe Preston noted, “I would love to offer relief, but $400,000 in administrative costs?”
Janes stressed the call for municipal tax relief “was essential . . . and we believe this is justified.”
He added, “We can be sustainable through significant changes.”
But under the present operating scenario, Janes indicated special events and fundraising are required to keep both entities afloat.
“Donations, which should go towards protecting the assets (buildings and
collection), are being used to meet expenses,” stressed Janes.
“This is a very difficult situation and makes fundraising from donors difficult.”
THOMAS SHUNTED OUT OF TOWN
Remaining on track with the railway theme, council was advised this past Monday the most famous visitor from the Isle of Sodor will no longer steam his way into St. Thomas.
A fixture every summer for the past 15 years – and until recently St. Thomas was his only stop in Ontario – Thomas the Tank Engine has whistled cheekily for the last time in The Railway City.
John Shapendonk of The Railworks Coalition broke the news during council’s reference committee meeting, noting over the past five years attendance at Day Out With Thomas has dropped, on average, 17 per cent each year.
Up until 2018, when the event actually lost money, Thomas spent two weekends in the city. That was reduced to a single weekend last summer, resulting in a small $15,000 profit.
In 2015, the iconic blue tank engine’s visits were reduced to five days from the normal six, resulting in a hit to the pocketbook for the city’s chief beneficiary — the Elgin County Railway Museum — as Thomas in the past had attracted in the range of 20,000 visitors over the two weekends.
Shapendonk advised council the visit from Thomas costs about $200,000 to pull off, “So it is not a good return on investment.”
He added, “The (Railworks) board looked at the risk and said it doesn’t make sense.”
Of late, Thomas has also been making stops in Uxbridge, north of Toronto, and that has resulted in a drop in visitors to St. Thomas from the Greater Toronto Area.
To compensate for the loss of Thomas, Shapendonk said a series of smaller railway-themed events will be held each year.
“We’re looking at adding four new events which should equal the net Day Out With Thomas revenue.”
He added, “The Thomas brand is struggling elsewhere in North America. It’s not what kids are watching.”
“I’m sad to see Thomas gone,” observed Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sands.
RESPECTING THE ALMA PROPERTY
As is most often the case, Coun. Steve Peters cut to the chase at Monday’s (Jan. 20) council meeting.
“We can’t undo what has happened at Alma.”
That didn’t stop him – along with Coun. Baldwin-Sands – in voting against two city bylaws that further clear the way for redevelopment of the Moore Street property, home to the former school for girls.
The first bylaw repealed the existing bylaw designating 96 Moore Street as a building of historic and architectural value.
The second officially endorsed the heritage easement agreement between the city and Patriot Properties, developers of the three-tower residential undertaking on the Alma site.
Affirming he would like to see redevelopment on the Moore Street site, Peters continued to express concerns over traffic volumes through the neighbourhood.
In particular, Peters called the westward extension of McIntyre street onto the property “a mistake.”
He added, “This will be a real burden on residents.”
Instead, Peters favoured direct access from Wellington Street, as was shown in the original plans for the proposed development.
He also pushed for the city to have its own criteria when undertaking shadow studies, instead of relying on City of Waterloo shadow study criteria used in the Patriot Properties proposal.
After a noon-hour visit to the city’s new three-storey community and social services hub at 230 Talbot Street, Peters admitted: “I am extremely worried about Phase 3.”
That building will tower over the existing residences along both Moore and McIntyre streets.
Baldwin-Sands also expressed ongoing concerns about neighbourhood traffic and the replacement of trees on the Alma site, some of which were inadvertently chopped down last spring.
“the city has consistently responded that this is a property of significant cultural heritage and interest”
In the process leading up to the heritage easement agreement – which rescinds a 2008 Ontario Municipal Board order requiring any development on the Alma property to “include a faithful and accurate representation of the front facade of the college building” – city manager Wendell Graves filed an affidavit to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.
His comments are worth noting.
The property at 96 Moore Street “is situated within a mature residential area of St. Thomas,” wrote Graves.
He continued, “the city has consistently responded that this is a property of significant cultural heritage and interest, which remains an integral factor that the owner and developer must respect and address in a satisfactory manner in connection with any proposed development on the property.”
And, finally, this observation.
“It is felt that, with very little remaining of the original infrastructure of the Alma College campus, it is important that commemorative installations, the detailed signage and the other interpretive features (all to be perpetually maintained under the heritage easement agreement) will serve vital functions in informing and educating residents of St. Thomas and new visitors to the site regarding the historical and cultural significance of this property as the former location of Alma College.”
It is hoped mayor and council will keep the words of the city manager in mind during the lengthy process required for the redevelopment of 96 Moore Street.
GRANT US A SANE GRANT POLICY
The absence over the years of a formal community grant process came back to bite city council big time on Monday (Jan. 20).
Organizers of the annual Seniors’ Day in the Park were requesting a grant of $2.500 for this year’s event scheduled for July which was to offset the cost of entertainment, park rentals, advertising and insurance.
In his request to council, Brian May even included a copy of last year’s financials and the planning committee’s 2020 budget.
After being told by finance director Dan Sheridan there was little money left in the community grant budget – perhaps $500 at the most – council had no option but to deny the request unless some provision is made to address the grant shortfall.
Last month, council directed staff that $273,925 be included in this year’s budget for grants to outside community groups.
At the Dec. 3 budget meeting last year, council agreed to continue funding four groups at the same amount as in 2019 plus a 2.4 per cent increase to match the proposed municipal property tax hike.
In 2019, the St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre received $70,000, the Talbot Teen Centre $60,000, the St. Thomas Seniors’ Centre $50,000 and St. Thomas Cemetery Company $55,000.
“Let’s get to the grant process at reference committee sooner rather than later.”
That left about $35,000 in the budget for funding requests that may come in throughout this year, such as the seniors’ picnic.
However, at that same budget meeting, Mayor Joe Preston suggested $30,000 from the community grant allocation be earmarked for a review of user fees related to the city’s parks and recreation department.
City manager Wendell Graves went a step further and asked to up that amount to $35,000 for a full review of all city user fees.
Leaving an empty cupboard for worthwhile events like the picnic in Pinafore Park.
Prompting Preston to stress this week, “Let’s get to the grant process at reference committee sooner rather than later.”
Last February, we likened the 2019 community funding allocation to a game of grant whack-a-mole.
A year later and nothing has changed.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
Thrilled to announce this scribbler is about to join the great bunch over at myFM here in St. Thomas.
Sometime next month you will begin to hear me reporting on area news and events plus I’ll be holding down the afternoon news run.
Can’t wait to ease back into the on-air saddle and keep myFM listeners abreast of local happenings.
Not to worry, City Scope will remain right here . . . no doubt continuing to spoil Saturday breakfast for unsuspecting readers.
THE READER’S WRITE
Responding to our Tweet earlier this week regarding Thomas the Tank Engine, Steven Gaboury Tweeted the following.
“I was always disappointed about how expensive it was. For your average St. Thomas family of four, the $100+ price tag was out of reach.”
And, the response from Carrie Hedderson Smith to last week’s item on the Hospice of Elgin was short and to the point.
“A hospice is urgently needed.”
FOR THE CALENDAR
Mayor Joe Preston is hosting his New Year’s Levee tomorrow (Jan. 26) from noon to 2 p.m. at the new community and social services hub at 2:30 Talbot Street. All are welcome.
Income tax season is just around the corner and MP Karen Vecchio sends along word the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program is looking for volunteers to assist with free tax clinics for low-income members in Elgin-Middlesex-London riding.
Her office is working with Canada Revenue Agency to recruit community-oriented individuals to help area residents file their tax returns and maintain eligibility for various federal credits and benefits.
Training is provided and interested volunteers are asked to call Cathy in MP Vecchio’s office at 519-637-2255.
All Breed Canine Rescue is hosting a microchip clinic Sunday, Feb. 9, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Global Pet Food Store, 900 Talbot St., St. Thomas. The cost is $35 per pet. You are asked to book ahead by calling 519-207-3663.
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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It is disheartening to see the current city council dismiss the decisions of the city council of 2008-2010 – namely repealing the existing bylaw designating 96 Moore Street as a building of historic and architectural value. and endorsing the heritage easement agreement between the city and Patriot Properties, developers of the three-tower residential undertaking there. If the property is to be gated and private, the minor items of commemoration will not even be seen except the ugly squat chunk of metal symbolizing Alma. That was not Alma ! Alma was a huge monument of tone and brick symbolizing St. Thomas ‘ gothic’ architecture from the late 1800s. The towers and spires could be seen from afar. Surely, at least one such tower with spire could be built and perhaps used as the entrance to one of the proposed buildings !
Mrs. Lara Leitch,
Former Vice Principal, Alma College
Member of the Alma Advocacy Association