St. Marys votes against new facility for Ball Hall

By: Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

The news was not good for the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame Wednesday.

The municipal council of St. Marys, Ont., where the hall is located, voted 6-1 to reject a hall request for a two-tiered funding scenario aimed at constructing a new facility to replace its current, dated product.

This decision dealt a major blow to the hall of fame's board of directors, who were looking optimistically at improving the size and quality of the museum.

The hall had requested that the town give them an annual upfront grant of $150,000 plus a commitment of $550,000 which would have been used toward a $6.36-million building that was projected for a 2019 finish.

"We are disappointed by the council vote, especially coming in the wake of demonstrated support for the project in town and through our national and international community of partners and benefactors,'' the hall's board of directors said in a prepared statement. "We are confident that we brought forward a realistic, achievable plan to bring economic growth and vitality to our town and regret that those benefits were not embraced.''

The vote followed on the heels of a just-released report by Watson & Associates, an economic study organization based in Mississauga. Watson officials made a presentation at Wednesday's meeting and so did Adam Stephens, the vice-chairman of the CBHFM board of directors.

Although the vote is a major setback for the hall, it doesn't mean its short-term or long-term future is at stake in St. Marys. But clearly, hall officials are stunned and shocked.

"The future of the hall of fame is not in jeopardy,'' Stephens said in a phone interview. "What today's results require is considerable discussion by the board. We have a lot of work to do. We have to consider the results of the vote and the comments made by the town councillors about what it is about the proposal that caused them concerns.

"As a board, we have to figure the best way forward. We have to dust ourselves off. Our focus was on that strategic plan. We invested a lot in it. We really believed in it.

"There seemed to be different factors at play for the different councillors. I don't want to paint the whole council with one brush. One of the councillors said the $550,000 would be much easier to support than the ongoing $150,000.''

When it came down to the nitty-gritty, St. Marys mayor Al Strathdee said the idea of spending taxpayers' money was really the issue.

"It was a very tough decision. The hall is a very big part of the town,'' Strathdee said. "Infrastructure is the biggest issue in our town. We have a $2-million bridge we have to consider for next year. We have problems facing our youth and we are faced with the issue of affordable housing. There are people every day who are struggling with current costs, who are on fixed incomes, are single parents or are in job transitions.

"To be honest, the most contentious issue for me was the $150,000. They said they would use the money to hire a fund-raiser. And when the new building was up and running, they would use the money to subsidize losses and run programs.

"If we had supported the hall's request, we would have to cut services or increase taxes by 1.5 percent,'' Strathdee explained. "Based on economic sense and affordability, it's hard in this day and age and our economic climate to spend taxpayers' money on this plan.''

The mayor wasn't happy when he heard at the meeting that the board of directors didn't want to alter its focus and be more flexible with its strategic master plan.

"I hadn't made up my mind before the meeting,'' the mayor said. "I thought they might want to alter their proposals, update their studies. But they said they didn't want to spend any more money on studies. I didn't expect them to say that. It put the council in a tough position at this time. It was very clear that they didn't have a flexible plan.''

The hall of fame was relocated to St. Marys in 1994 after many years in Toronto. The museum attracts about 5,500 visitors per year in a 1,000 square foot building that is so small that numerous artifacts have to be stored elsewhere.

In its strategic plan, the hall had projected that it would attract 16,000 museum visitors per year plus another 38,000 to attend ballgames held at its fields on town land.

If the hall had received a favourable vote from town council, it would have pursued capital funding from the provincial and federal governments, national sponsors and the baseball community, including inductees. The town of St. Marys currently offers the hall annual operating support in the form of cash and in-kind services. 

Today's vote puts the hall back to square one. Home plate is a long distance away.