I was very happy reading the stories and seeing the pictures of the magnificent new Waterfront Adventure Centre Sault College has constructed on the old RYTAC site just off Queen Street; it is a structure I don’t think anyone would have envisaged when the battle to save the site from its planned commercial sale in 2012 began.
At that time the YMCA and Rotary, who for a $1 price tag in 1969 had been handed the remains of the St. Mary’s River Boat Club, were planning to sell the site for an asking price of $990,000.
The site had been placed in the hands of the two organizations for development because the trustees of the boat club fully believed the Y was the entity best suited to carry through on their plans for a paddling, rowing, sailing and tennis club to serve the community over the long term.
And that indeed was the case for more than 30 years.
Then the downhill slide began.
I thought some of you might appreciate a recap of what eventually brought about the magnificent structure that now graces the waterfront.
RYTAC, an acronym for Rotary/YMCA Tennis and Aquatics Club, actually seemed headed for oblivion in 2004 but it was saved at the time by the intervention of a group of concerned members and citizens.
But in 2012 the wheels really came off.
In April the Y announced it would not open RYTAC that year, explaining that its adult and summer camp use had dwindled to the point where it was not financially feasible to do the renovations necessary to keep it operating.
The property reverted to the Rotary Club of Sault Ste. Marie and within a month it was put up for sale.
Ken Miller Jr. and Karen McAndrew, whose fathers were boat club trustees involved in the 1969 transfer, obtained an interim injunction against the sale.
But facing mounting legal costs as the Y was playing hardball by bringing in Davis Moldaver, a heavyweight legal team from Toronto, they simply didn’t have the financial resources behind them to carry on, even though they had had some support from a couple of local people and some legal work done pro bono.
This came home to them when at one point in the legal process they were asked, “Can you really afford to do this?” With figures like $40,000 and $50,000 being bandied about for their own costs, without the Y possibly coming after them for its, they came to the realization they really couldn’t.
Frances Sewards, a member of RYTAC since 1971 and one who helped save the club in 2004, sought intervenor status and filed an affidavit with the court in which she claimed that the Y had breached the trust agreement and that the Rotary Club was negligent in not demanding the Y fulfill its duty.
Sewards said in her affidavit that back in 2004 “there were constant rumours that the Y was deliberately running RYTAC down as their unexpressed desire was to sell it.
She said as a result a local committee of volunteers was set up to assist the Y and in November 2005 she sent a five-year plan electronically to the Y board. One of the recommendations was to continue discussions with Algoma University College and other potential partners.
The committee never met face to face with the board but were told its report had been discussed at length, although there was never a formal response.
Although the committee operated until 2007, Sewards said after a new CEO was appointed it never heard from the Y again.
“I am of the opinion that the YMCA has continued over many years to mine the RYTAC property to run only the profitable summer day camps on the site, which contributes considerably to its deterioration, and made little or no effort to promote tennis and/or any of the aquatic sports over many years.”
Judge Edward Koke denied her claim and in doing so, also cleared the way for the Y and Rotary to go ahead with their plans to sell the site.
Overriding community concerns, the Public Guardian and Trustee of Ontario also went along with the proposed sale.
But where Miller, McAndrew and Sewards were looking for time to come up with a community solution, others were too, Frank Shunock among them.
They had been given some precious time to work with because companies weren’t exactly breaking down the doors to purchase the property, probably because of the high price tag but also maybe because a lot of companies would not want to walk into what had turned into a conflict with the community.
Richard Myers, then president of Algoma University, wanted to commit the university to the project but was having trouble convincing his board to go in that direction.
He saw a partnership with Sault College as the way to go and in my column of Nov. 30, 2013, I reported, on the word of an inside source, that the site was to be owned and operated by Algoma University and Sault College.
I was told at the time that an offer of 400,000 for the property had been made by a local philanthropist but had been rejected as being too low.
I said at the time the identity of the individual was pretty well an open secret but I was going to play along as I didn’t feel any great need to reveal it.
It was, of course, Lou Lukenda.
And his $400,000 was to come into play again as things moved along, with Algoma University stepping aside and Sault College stepping up.
I reported in a column on May 10, 2014, again with information from my inside source, that the site had passed into the hands of Sault College the week previous and the college had plans to restore the facility to its former glory.
I said I couldn’t go into further detail as the man all sources point to as the one who will release the information as to what the college has in store for the site, President Ron Common, would be out of town until Tuesday of the following week.
I didn’t know it at the time, but other contributors had come forward to top up the $400,000 offered by Lukenda, $260,000 from the late Franklin Prouse being the most significant among them, to reach a purchase price agreeable to the sellers.
So what happened to bring about the change to Sault College being in sole control?
Myers told me that the university tried to form a partnership with Sault College but it became very complicated to work out the legalities of doing that.
“As the college was going to be the heavier user of the property, we said, ‘look, let’s just get this done.’ Myers said the university’s approach from the start was to determine what the two institutions could do to preserve RYTAC for public and educational purposes.
“The easiest and best solution was to have one institution go forward and Sault College was better positioned to do that,” he said.
And the institution route definitely was the way to go. A community group may have, given time, come up with the money to purchase the site but it never would have picked up in government grants what Sault College did, $897,000 from Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, $710,000 from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and $104,000 from FedNor. The College threw in $417,000 itself and received $171,000 in donations.
Paul Orazietti, manager of athletics at the college, was quoted as saying that community use was expected to top student attendance.
He said. Summer camps would be offered for youth and memberships could be purchased for racquet sports, water activities, or both. Pickleball, kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding and beach volleyball would also be available and a climbing area is expected in 2020. Bicycles will be available for renting.
The 4,960-square-foot centre is expected to be open from about early May to late September and will employ about 10 staff, all Sault College students or graduates.
Students from several college programs, including fish and wildlife conservation technician and natural environment and outdoor studies, will do course work at the centre.
In truth it will be a shared facility, offering much more than I, for one, ever expected.
I will admit that I originally believed there was an argument against the sale on moral grounds, that the intent of the agreement between St. Mary’s River Boat Club and the Y and Rotary was to provide the community with an ongoing recreational asset, not a nest egg for the organizations who got the property for $1.
After all, the deed for the property, a document which showed the transfer of the assets but which ultimately proved to be flawed in the wording of its intent, said the aim of the newly named Rotary/YMCA Tennis and Aquatics Club (RYTAC) would be “the promotion of and instruction in paddling, rowing and sailing together with the promotion of and instruction in tennis.”
But Koke bought the legal argument that was made on the basis of the following in the deed:
“The grantee (YMCA) agrees to use its best efforts to promote the youth program as outlined above and also agrees that should the lands, premises and equipment cease to be used for an active program of aquatic sports and tennis, the ownership of the lands, premises and equipment will revert and forthwith be conveyed to the party of the third part (Rotary).
“The question as to whether or not the lands, premises and equipment cease to be used as an active program of aquatic sports and tennis, shall be determined by a judge of the District Court of the District of Algoma.”
Since the Y had closed RYTAC, Koke really didn’t have any other choice than to declare it was no longer being used as an active program for sports. Therefore he allowed the sale.
I said at that time Sault College, Algoma University and those who put up the money deserved a lot of credit for keeping RYTAC alive, but we must never forget those who, refusing to let the dream die, worked so diligently behind the scenes to bring all parties to the table and keep them there.
On that basis, I will give the last word to Shunock, who was involved in such a capacity throughout:
“You are correct that intervention by several people prevented Rotary from selling RYTAC to private developers,” he said in a reply to my email. “There was also strong and effective support within Rotary to keep RYTAC as it was for the whole community.
“The then Algoma University president selflessly encouraged me to ask Ron Common and Leo Tiberi to take up the cause as he could not convince his board/staff to act quickly enough as time was a factor so far as Rotary was concerned.
“Ron and Leo acted with lightning speed and saw the importance of this unique opportunity. Bob Paciocco was important, as was Roger Rossette, in saving RYTAC while at the same time acknowledging the financial situation confronting Rotary. I did continue to talk with Lou (Lukenda) and others to keep them aware of what was happening and they all came through .And finally Franklin Prouse came through with the final financial contribution in an amount similar to your figure.”
Shunock said Sault Ste. Marie now has a community development that will enhance the lives of all of us for generations to come. “That is what is important and many worked to that end,” he said.
Indeed many did and, seeing the result, we certainly should be thankful they did.