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Kiwanis Club gives up operation of Casa Loma

Scaffolding covers a portion of Casa Loma.

della rollins The Globe and Mail

After three-quarters of a century, the Kiwanis Club is ready to let someone else worry about polishing the armour and sweeping the stables at Toronto's Casa Loma. It has agreed to hand over operations of the city-owned tourist attraction in return for more than $1.4-million for the paintings, furniture and other artifacts and trademarks it will leave behind.

The deal, to be presented next week to the city's executive committee, would set up a new corporation and board to manage the rambling mansion and develop a long-term strategy for the five-acre site. If approved by council, the pact will be the latest twist in a years-long debate over how to make the most of the massive property that has struggled to pull in visitors, especially since the recession. It also brokers an amiable end to the sometimes troubled partnership between the city and the Kiwanis Club of Casa Loma. Just three years ago, the club battled hard to win a new 20-year management contract, only to have questions raised about that deal last summer.

"There is a unique set of skills that is required to run a castle in a modern environment," said Councillor Joe Mihevc, an ex-officio member of Casa Loma's board. "A service club might not have that expertise. I think there is a recognition that we have to up the game."

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Asked about the feud that erupted last summer, which led the city to demand the Casa Loma board chair's resignation, Mr. Mihevc said those differences have been worked out.

He hopes a new management deal will see the terraces and halls built by tycoon Sir Henry Pellatt some 100 years ago filled with corporate events and weddings at night as well as tourists and local school children by day.

"It's just got to be a place where Toronto plays," he said.

In recent years, managers of the landmark have strained to extend its reach and compete for precious tourist dollars. Visits during the first three months of 2011 fell by 6 per cent compared to a year earlier.

Casa Loma board chair Richard Wozenilek, whose law firm was at the centre of a dispute over billings last summer, said Tuesday that the allegations, made by former mayor David Miller, were never substantiated and played no role in negotiations to cut short the management contract.

"What happened last summer has nothing to do with what is going before city council," he said. "I am still chair and the then mayor is no longer mayor."

Talks for the Kiwanis Club to bow out of its management duties began in December after Rob Ford was elected, he said. The change of heart by the club to end its 20-year deal follows a drop in revenue and visitors during the recession. The demographics of the club's members was also a factor, said Mr. Wozenilek, who has led the Casa Loma board for two decades.

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"A lot of its members are quite frankly tired after 75 years of operation," he said.

Under the terms of the deal, the Kiwanis Club will be allowed to hold weekly meetings at the mansion free of charge and up to five charitable events each year. It also will be given free office space and the city will put up a plaque to honour the club's long history with the building.

All existing employment and service contracts will be honoured, and the Kiwanis Club will work with the city during a four-month transition period.

The agreement is expected to go before city council in June. Mr. Mihevc said he hopes the new corporation and board will be in place some time next year. The new board will decide how Casa Loma will be managed, he said.

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