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Kirkland Lake's Heritage North up for sale

Town council wipes its hands of money-losing event and conference centre

Kirkland Lake's hockey museum-turned-banquet hall is on the block.

Town council is moving toward divestiture of the municipally-owned Heritage North that opened as a sports tourism attraction in the mid-2000s.

Over the decades, the 14-year-old facility on Government Road had become a contentious issue among local politicians and residents in questioning the rationale of the municipality running a money-losing facility, some considered a discretionary service that was beyond the financial capacity of the town of 9,000.

"I'd rather have our name off the property and move on," said Mayor Pat Kiely at a May 5 meeting, in reflecting the general mood of councillors seeking a sale.

"I can't see us really breaking even on this one way or the other."

Large gathering restrictions associated with COVID-19 has "effectively wiped out" any event or banquet bookings until mid to late fall, said economic development and tourism director Wilf Hass.

But Hass cautioned that putting the building up for the sale during a pandemic might not return a fair market value. Council is awaiting a report from a property appraisal done recently.

Among the staff-suggested range of operating scenarios was to enter into an agreement with various community groups to jointly run the building.

Some councillors were open-minded to the idea but still favoured getting the building off the books, calling it a "perennial money-loser."

"It would be a stretch for a White Knight to come in, as an organization, to take over a losing proposition," said Kiely.

"If somebody does come forward to staff and shows an interest, definitely we'll listen to them. But in the meantime, we're looking at divesting."

A staft report to council pegged the building's operating expenses, as a full-service municipal facility, at $150,000 a year with $318,000 forecasted over the next five years.

Heritage North opened its doors as hockey museum in 2006, run by an independent board.

When the anticipated visitorship didn't materialize and revenues declined, the municipality took it over in 2008, assuming a $4.1-million loan to cover the building's construction costs. That loan was paid off last year from facility-generated revenues.

More than a $1 million was later spent, with the aid of government grants, to convert the facility into a full-service municipal conference and events centre.

The evolution of the building into a meeting and social gathering space boosted revenues, but it was never a financially self-sustaining endeavour.

Heritage North was part of an early to mid-2000s wave of building, so-called, destination tourism attractions financed under the Northern Ontario Tourism Partnership Program that saw the construction of Cochrane's Polar Bear Habitat, the Shania Twain Centre (since demolished) in Timmins, and Dynamic Earth in Sudbury.