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Is Heritage North too big, too costly for Kirkland Lake?

Council questions arise over costs to operate municipal banquet hall
Heritage North
Kirkland Lake's Heritage North found new life as a converted banquet hall, but the local municipal council questions whether it wants to remain in the wedding and conference venue business.

Heritage North, Kirkland Lake’s hockey museum-turned-banquet hall, has come under scrutiny.

The cost of operating the publicly owned facility was on the agenda of the Town of Kirkland Lake council in June prior to the municipality heading into its annual budget deliberations.

A recommendation came forth to consider a service review of the building, which opened its doors more than a decade ago as Hockey Heritage North.

The 17,000-square-foot facility opened in 2006 as a government-supported tourism destination attraction dedicated to hockey with a collection of historical artifacts, photos, memorabilia and interactive displays.

With the venue attracting little visitorship, it was converted into a more-frequented conference and banquet centre for weddings, corporate meetings and other gatherings.

A report provided to council indicated the total operating loss of Heritage North between 2015 and 2018 amounted to $824,545. With the mortgage, it totalled more than $2.3 million.

Kirkland Lake CAO Wilf Hass acknowledges it’s a unique facility for a town of Kirkland Lake’s size and population (8,000), but categorizes it as any other publc institution.

“I think it should be considered and treated as a luxury item, or a discretionary expenditure, the same as a museum, the recreational centre or the library,” all of which operate as a loss.

As a banquet hall, Hass said the facility is less of a drain on the public purse than it ever was as a hockey museum. He didn’t have numbers handy to show the comparables in visitorship or event bookings.

“At least with Heritage North, I’m seeing more revenues coming in and our costs of operating going down. I look at the museum – a building we don’t own and probably has a million dollars’ worth of renovations that we’re responsible for – and we don’t see any visitation.”

With Heritage North’s mortgage paid off this year, Hass said the building’s operating costs run between $144,000 and $146,000 each year.

Among the options put forth were tendering out the operations of the hall, moving municipal offices into the building, or selling it outright.

“We’ve never been directed formally by council to dispose of the asset but we have certainly explored every avenue to alternate operations,” said Hass, who added it’s too premature to say the facility is on the block.

“If someone comes forward and wants to buy that facility, I would certainly bring it forward to council.”

The possibility of relocating a town department to Heritage North, to get better usage of the building, was once considered, but the previous CAO backed away from that option because of its internal layout, its high ceilings and the absence of external windows.

“The (former) CAO realized that it is not an easily designed space that windows can be easily punched into walls. It just wasn’t worth it.”

If council chose to mothball the facility, Hass cautions that one-third of operating costs are utilities, insurance, maintenance and cleaning.

Heading into late budget deliberations, Hass said Kirkland Lake council has some tough decisions to make on service levels to avoid some steep rate hikes.

At the same time, the municipality is undergoing a top-to-bottom organizational review of the corporation, hiring StrategyCorp of Toronto to evaluate its entire operation.

“Our existing organizational structure was put together in the 1990s for a shrinking community. Now here we are, we’re certainly a community of growing concern (with spinoff growth from expansion at Kirkland Lake Gold) and we can’t handle that. We need to change.”

Hass is advising council to hold off on a decision on Heritage North until after the budget and once the findings of the strategic review come in later this year.