by JOHN BARBER
Warning: Never come between a Kiwanian and his castle. Even if you tippy-toe, as the city is attempting to do with its “implementation of a new vision and governance structure for Casa Loma,” you are going to get whacked.
The report from an advisory committee recommending a gentle end to the service club’s 69 years of operating the great pile on the hill is “ludicrous,” “ill-prepared” and “ill-conceived,” according to lawyer Richard Wozenilek, head of the Kiwanis Club of Casa Loma. The club “vehemently rejects” the report’s “egregious distortions,” a press release states. The only exceptions are the parts it obtained from the club’s own report on its own vision for the city’s No. 3 tourist trap, according to Mr. Wozenilek. “We really got upset with this,” he added.
And now the club has gone to war — arming itself with professional lobbyists and spin doctors in an all-out effort to hang on to the prize. “We’ve got a successful operation,” Mr. Wozenilek says. “We’re not costing the city a penny. . . . We have a very professional team. And we’ve developed this Casa Loma site. It’s because of us it that it’s known as this tourist attraction.”
You’d think that the Kiwanis Club built the thing, brick by brick. But as it happens, city taxpayers are the ones currently doing that — contributing $25-million for a multiyear restoration of the castle’s crumbling exterior. That’s seven times more than Casa Loma cost its first vainglorious owner to build just prior to the First World War, and it goes a long way to explaining the city’s new interest in the old asset it seized in 1933 for $27,303 in back taxes.
In other words, the city wants to lever more money out of its castle, “making it less dependent on city funding over time,” according to the advisory committee’s report.
The other reasons are more difficult to express, considering the Kiwanis Club’s long stewardship and sterling reputation for community service. If any of the committee members were willing to speak as pungently as Mr. Wozenilek, they might choose such words as “tired,” “dowdy” or “lame” to describe the problem with Casa Loma. Instead, they are excruciatingly diplomatic.
“At the moment, the city owns Casa Loma and they have leased it to the Kiwanis Club,” says Annex lawyer and former MPP Ronald Kanter, chairman of the advisory committee. “It has been a sole-source contract for understandable historical reasons. It certainly made sense back in 1937. The question is, is it the very best we can do in the future?”
The answer is no, according to the committee. It has recommended that the castle’s management, currently divided between the city and the club, be put in the hands of a non-profit trust headed by deep-pocketed “stakeholders” who will raise funds from the public to maintain the castle while radically improving its programming.
Cutting out Kiwanis also means ending its current practice of directing a share of ticket revenues to charity. “We think that the bulk of the revenue raised by people visiting the castle should go to its maintenance and upkeep,” Mr. Kanter says, adding that the trust could arrange special events to help the club raise even more money for charity than it does now.
But Mr. Wozenilek isn’t impressed. “We give back to the community,” he says. “Apparently that’s not a good thing to do, according to Ron Kanter.”
Mr. Kanter thinks that the facility will be better off “financially as well as culturally” under new management. “Maybe we could have more than just a Druxy’s in the basement to provide additional revenue,” he muses.
Saying that the “status quo is not sustainable” because Casa Loma “lacks a champion,” the committee is convinced that “the appropriate governance model” will ensure its future as a flourishing cultural asset.
“The club doesn’t have the heavy hitters who can make the right noise to attract the funding,” one senior city hall source explained. The tipping point in the decision to ease out Kiwanis came when Casa Loma failed in its most recent bid to attract provincial funding. “The application was on the minister’s desk and the government was ready to fund it,” the source said. “But they didn’t get one call.”
Without an active lobby behind it, the funding application died.
The irony of the struggle is that both sides agree on the need for major improvements to Casa Loma and both make similar suggestions, including improved access and better facilities. Facing the end of its current lease, the club wants the city to give its lease a 20-year extension.
“We’re already one of the top three attractions in this city, one of the top 10 in this country, and we’re doing a very good job, plowing funds back into the community,” Mr. Wozenilek says. “And they want to tinker with it. Why?”
The answer to that is actually clear: The city owns Casa Loma and is currently spending a fortune fixing it up. A better question is whether or not its “heavy hitters” will do a better job managing and funding the place — or whether such people even exist.