Preserve a critical piece of property intrinsically linked to the city’s railway heritage or build 240 or so badly needed housing units in the downtown core.
That’s the question to be put to members of the Elgin County Railway Museum early next month.
St. Thomas developer Doug Tarry is offering to purchase eight acres of railway land immediately west of the museum at $300,000 per acre for low-rise residential development that would front on to a new street to be built off Ross Street and north of Jonas Street.
The museum would remain, as would the transfer table to the east. Much of the existing yard track would have to be lifted to create a new yard to the north of the museum, maintaining the connection with the Port Stanley Terminal Rail line.
The offer is conditional on the museum receiving approval of the membership.
The reason for a possible sale of some of the excess land is to raise funds to go toward restoring the museum building – the former Michigan Central Railroad locomotive shops – while reducing ongoing operating costs.
Proceeds from the sale will provide seed money to access additional loans and grants to allow for the complete restoration of the building.
Matt Janes, vice-president of the museum’s board of directors, approached city council in January of 2020 seeking tax relief for The Railworks Coalition – representing the museum, the CASO station and the St. Thomas Elevated Park.
He reminded Joe Preston and councillors, “Our assets are the strongest link to the new city branding.”
According to Janes, the museum and station contribute more than $4 million to the St. Thomas economy each year.
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,” advised Janes.
We spoke with Janes yesterday (July 30) to get a sense of what is at stake for the museum, its volunteers and the priceless collection of rolling stock and artifacts.
Janes confirmed what is planned “is a significant residential development slated for the downtown.”
Janes continued, “For the last couple of years, we’ve been looking at the best use of the property. The museum owns about 16 acres . . . One of the options we were considering was developing it or selling it for development.
“And, at that point, Doug Tarry approached us.”
“I think the main concern of a lot of the members is that the railway aspect of the museum – the ability to access our collection of rolling stock and to bring trains onto the site – be maintained.”
Here’s where Janes gets down to the nitty-gritty.
“The reason we’re doing this is we need to raise money in order to protect our main assets which are the museum building and the collection.
“And so by selling a portion of the land, the money we raise will go a long way toward protecting and restoring the building and protecting the tremendous collection we have.”
Janes advised the board has been working with Tarry on the proposed sale for about a month.
“It was finalized just recently and we presented it at the AGM on Tuesday night and there was some discussion, but at that point, we deferred a vote by the membership for a two-week period.”
The date for the membership vote is now Aug. 10.
We asked Janes about feedback from the membership to this point and he noted, “Certainly there was discussion on both sides of the issue.
“I think the main concern of a lot of the members is that the railway aspect of the museum – the ability to access our collection of rolling stock and to bring trains onto the site – be maintained.
“We’re committed to maintaining the railway aspect of the museum,” assured Janes.
“We as a board are very confident that we’ve got a developer who is going to look after . . . the broader interests of the museum and the downtown core.”
“We have to figure out how to relocate the track so that the purpose can still be maintained.
“We’ve made a commitment as part of this deal to retain ownership of all of the track and be responsible for the relocation or rebuilding of the rail yard so that we can be sure it meets our purposes.”
What if the members were to vote down acceptance of the deal?
“If this particular plan doesn’t go through, then I guess we’re going to be trying to find other plans to do the same thing.”
Janes has nothing but praise for the work Doug Tarry has done on a variety of fronts in St. Thomas, including a significant financial contribution to the St. Thomas Elevated Park and the city’s trail system.
“Doug Tarry personally and his company have been a tremendous boost to the city in any number of ways. And, he’s also nationally recognized as an energy-efficient homebuilder.
“We as a board are very confident that we’ve got a developer who is going to look after . . . the broader interests of the museum and the downtown core.
“We’re pretty confident if this goes through, they’ll do what’s really important to look after not just their own interests, but the broader community interest as well.”
As an aside, five years ago the museum trotted out an ambitious plan for a proposed railway park on the site (see artist’s rendering above). It would have seen a spectacular transformation of a barren brownfield into “a central park for all ages, with the ability to provide event space, recreation activities, and extend the heritage culture of the Elgin County Railway Museum,” according to a release. Oh, what might have been.
As we closed out our conversation, Janes noted he went through the original articles of incorporation of the Elgin County Railway Museum in 1989 and Tarry’s father, Doug Tarry Sr., was one of the founders of the museum.
Talk about what goes around, comes around.
EVERYTHING IS NOT OK
Upon retirement, many people pursue golf and fishing or embrace a craft they’ve always meant to take up but life got in the way.
Others set out to travel and visit far-flung places they’ve dreamed about for years and now have the freedom and finances to visit.
Not so for St. Thomas artist and sculptor Dennis Kalichuk.
After delivering his last letter for Canada Post, Kalichuk has chosen to take up a cause.
As per his media release sent out this week, he has launched “a movement and official petition to ask the Ontario government for immediate and sweeping changes to the way that Ontario deals with issues and problems of homelessness, mental health and addictions.”
He elaborates, “I mean I just can’t take it anymore. The line in the playground mulch has been crossed. I say that as used needles were recently found near the bottom of a public playground slide in my home community of St. Thomas, Ontario. So this is my attempt to try to actually do something about this huge, widespread problem.”
He points back in time to 2013 when Ontario’s Standing Committee on Mental Health and Addictions released their Journey to Wellness report.
Addictions and Mental Health Ontario (AMHO) was created to oversee the hundreds of agencies in the province providing care in what Kalichuk sees as “a very piecemeal fashion after larger institutions were closed by the government.
“AMHO has now released their own campaign called Everything Is Not OK and is calling for changes to the current system. An online petition is associated with the campaign, however, online petitions are not recognized or accepted as official petitions by the government of Ontario.
“In the end, I think it’s possible that adding the AMHO to the top of the mix simply added yet another agency, another layer of bureaucracy, and a number of highly paid positions without garnering the success and results that were hoped for.”
In a conversation with Kalichuk on Thursday (July 29) he observed, “I think this (his call for action through a petition) is a very important first step to accomplish some real and tangible changes.”
He has not met with any politicians at this stage, instead, he would rather generate “a swelling from the people of Ontario.”
“I’m just a guy. I’m nobody special. I’m nobody with expert knowledge in this area. I’m just someone, like everyone else, who knows that something needs to be done. I’m just trying to get that ball rolling.”
He has conversed with the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association (OBIAA) which is sympathetic to his cause.
“Our downtowns are ground zero for what is happening,” stresses Kalichuk.
“Our downtown core is the heartbeat of our community and if they are suffering, our heartbeats are suffering.”
And it need not be an us versus them battleground, offers Kalichuk.
“We’re all after the same thing. We want to look after our citizens who most need the help.
“We want to take care of them in a way that is successful and has an end that is curing-based.
“And, the natural byproduct of doing that is going to be a healthier, more attractive downtown in all communities.”
He continues, “Ontario is one of the richest provinces in one of the best countries in the entire world and you look at the number of people who are in need of help that we see on the streets.”
People who need mental health intervention, says Kalichuk.
“These numbers should not be onerous for us to tackle and provide help.”
He points to the St. Thomas Police Service and Chief Chris Herridge “who have some very good recommendations on how we can proceed.”
Kalichuk, a musician who performed under the name Jumbo Train, in modest fashion suggests. “I’m just a guy. I’m nobody special. I’m nobody with expert knowledge in this area.
“I’m just someone, like everyone else, who knows that something needs to be done. I’m just trying to get that ball rolling.
“Hopefully, there are going to be people with a lot more knowledge and expertise than I have who will jump on board and help out.”
Kalichuk anticipates taking the remainder of the summer to promote the campaign and gather original signatures on the petition forms before having them presented to the Ontario Legislature in the fall.
He has a Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/254604603140522
His blog with the petition which can be downloaded for signatures can be found at https://denniskalichuk.wordpress.com/
THE READER’S WRITE
With regard to last week’s item on city manager Wendell Graves, reader Serge Lavoie offers this cautionary note.
“Incredibly naive for anyone to think that a municipality of this size can be operated without a manager or CAO. Council’s role should be long-term strategy and oversight of the manager. Direct management by council or committees will always fail. Always.”
Carrie Hedderson Smith is not a fan of the city manager, based on her observation.
“Going from a city clerk’s payroll to that of CAO was most certainly the winning ticket for the gravy train. Bon voyage Wendell, maybe the next incumbent will treat taxpayers with common courtesy and respect and not just be there for the paycheck, actually do some good.”
Leo Anthony writes in a similar vein.
“Holding off his retirement until March makes one wonder if any retirement or other benefits kick in at that time, or possibly future employment. Retirement will be good for Graves, and even better for St. Thomas!”
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
Visit us on Facebook
And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.