Watson study group examines St. Marys Hall request

By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network

Build It and They Will Come.

You’ve heard of that old axiom. That’s what the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame feels will happen if they get a new facility built by 2019. But not everyone in St. Marys, Ont. where the hall is located, feels the same way.

With some people strongly opposed to the idea, the CBHOF is looking to gain funding from the town of St. Marys and the concept received additional recognition Friday when Watson & Associates released its long awaited examination of the hall’s financial request and its Strategic Master Plan.

The Hall is requesting $150,000 in annual funding upfront from the Town of St. Marys and a commitment of $550,000 towards the capital project. The city would need to plan for that money now, but not provide it now as it isn’t requested until the rest of the money is raised. 

While the Watson report neither approves nor rejects the idea of the funding request, it is concerned that the hall’s projected attendance figures in a new facility are lower than what Watson examiners envision. The latest estimate for attendance is 16,000 but an earlier estimate had been 54,000, which includes 38,000 on the site to watch games  The current annual attendance at the Hall is about 5,500.

Watson feels that lower attendance will mean lower revenues, even if hall officials go ahead with an admission reduction to $6 per person, compared to the current $7.50.

“It would appear that the visitation estimates have been higher than what our review provides for,’’ the Watson report states. “It’s estimated that operating revenues will be lower and may generate deficits of $70,000 to $130,000 annually. The master plan says attendance will double and we assume costs would double with attendance.

“The challenge is the primary and secondary markets are not growing and that is a common problem in southwestern Ontario. Will there be programs to attracts retirees and seniors to the new facility since this is considered a growing market?’’

Watson, a leading economic consulting group based in Mississauga, had been studying the hall’s Strategic Master Plan for a better part of 2016. Watson expressed some concern in its report that the hall’s $6.36-million estimated cost of a new facility was based on 2014 figures. Hall officials told Watson that they consulted with its architect and was told that the estimate would probably remain the same.

In response for information from Watson, the hall of fame said it expected to receive $1.25-million each from the provincial and federal governments for capital costs. Additional money would be raised through sponsors and national companies with a local presence in southwestern Ontario and the baseball community, including inductees of the hall and the Toronto Blue Jays.

The ball hall has its detractors, according to letters written to the town in advance of a special Dec. 21 meeting that will deal with the hall of fame project from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

“I do not feel it’s reasonable or right to hoist the annual operating shortfall for a new ball hall museum onto the shoulders of the taxpayers of St. Marys,’’ said Heritage St. Marys chair Larry Pfaff,  who is also with the Ontario Art Gallery.

“I do not feel that a new museum for the ball hall will be self-sustaining nor do I believe that it’s up to the town of St. Marys to sustain it on an annual basis. I have seen museums built or expanded and from the opening, unable to hire additional staff or even pay to turn on the heat.’’

Lorne Eedy, a co-founder of the hall of fame, was strongly opposed to the board of directors’ plan to build the facility in a part of St. Marys on a side street that is not in the downtown core.

“I support the concept of a museum,’’ Eedy wrote in a letter to Town of St. Marys CAO Brent Kittmer. “I do not support the current museum request for funding by the directors of the CBHOF to the municipality. This is the wrong location. This is a folly, more specifically a cardboard monument.  Cardboard monuments disappear in time.’’

Eedy specifically suggests that the new facility must be built in downtown St. Marys for it to be an attractive proposition.

“Council should send the directors back to the planning stage, insisting that if the board wants money, then downtown is the location,’’ Eedy said.

Not only that, Eedy srongly suggests that the CBHOF make every attempt to lure Baseball Canada to St. Marys to take advantage of the number of diamonds located adjacent to the hall of fame.

“Baseball Canada’s desire to stay in a commercial building in Ottawa with no adjacent training facility does not make sense or cents,’’ Eedy said.

Kittmer said in a letter to council that there are three options to the hall of fame scenario: refer it back to the hall for a more detailed study; approve it in principle subject to negotiating a grant agreement; or turn it down.

“The grant request from the CBHOH represents a significant funding commitment from the town,’’ Kittmer said in a letter as part of a package handed out to mayor Al Strathdee and town councillors.

There were pro-hall letters of support from the St. Marys Minor Ball Association, the Rotary Club of St. Marys, lifetime CBHOF donor Barry Naymark of Toronto and London writer and author Brian (Chip) Martin, among others.

“The time to really push this project is now. It’s a proven winner. Rotary is prepared to step up and be counted as a supporter,’’ said local Rotary club president Stan Malcolm.

“The new Strategic Master Plan of the hall that includes a new museum and enhancement of its baseball grounds will be something memorable, significant and historic for all Canadians, coast to coast, to visit, to experience and to enjoy,’’ Naymark wrote in his letter of support.

Whether Santa has a Christmas present for the CBHOF is way up in the air. Four days before Christmas, town council will decide on the future of the hall. The CBHOF boasts a small, dated facility and a new one is needed but whether the town wants to get involved financially is far from certain. It appears iffy at best.

The Watson report can be viewed on the Town of St. Marys website along with the letters of support and dissent.