Saving History, The Canadian Air and Space Museum Teeters

It’s hard to fathom what path of miscommunication forced heritage airplanes, including an Avro Arrow replica, a DHC-2 Beaver and the world’s oldest DHC-1 Chipmunk, outside of the Canadian Air and Space Museum on Sept. 20, 2011.


According to the board of directors who run the museum, they were told by personnel they had to get the artifacts out of the Downsview Park facility, north of Toronto, by the end of the day or risk losing everything inside.
“I got the call at 10:30, and I was told at noon they’re changing the locks. I just jammed in my car and belted over there,” recalled curator Robert Godwin in a SpaceRef interview.
“I walked up to people from the park and said I have a whole bunch of stuff in this building … (and asked) ‘If I don’t get my stuff right now, can I come back next week to get it?’ They said, ‘You’ll have to talk to the park about it’, which didn’t inspire a lot of confidence.”
But according to the Downsview directors themselves, the rush of emotions that accompanied the museum’s eviction notice caused tensions to run high. The museum had six months to leave, they say.
“When a landlord terminates the lease, they have to change the locks … we said if you need to get in, let us know, but the locks have to be changed,” countered David Soknacki, chair of Downsview’s board, in a separate interview.
When asked about the artifacts being pulled out and the rumours of them needing to go immediately, he responded with, “It was certainly an emotional time.”
The situation that played out Sept. 20 was the climax of a museum board replacement, months of missed rent and an opportunity Downsview saw for redeveloping what it saw as an undervalued asset.
Underneath lie questions about the facility’s heritage status as well as what should happen when a museum, run by a private corporation, finds itself in the trouble the Canadian Air and Space Museum does at the moment. At press time, the museum directors are still fighting to find a new home.
museum_from_air_marked625.jpgCanadian Air and Space Museum at Downsview Park. Image courtesy Canadian Air and Space Museum.
Space oddity
Godwin’s colourful past, according to his author biography on CG Publishing, includes writing about Led Zeppelin, publishing the back catalogues of artists such as David Bowie,
and hosting a party at the Playboy Mansion for Arthur C. Clarke in 2001.
Around space circles, he is best known for his series NASA: The Mission Reports, which included documents and data from virtually every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission.
No stranger to media is he nor his adversary Soknacki, who at turns has been president of distributor Econ Food Industries Corp., councillor for the cities of Toronto and Scarborough, and a columnist for Metroland Publishing.
Both men have backgrounds that touch on journalism. Both have community connections: One is a space historian, the other a long-serving Toronto politician who serves on many boards. So it is interesting that their assessments of the situation vary so greatly.
For example, the two men differ on whether it was the museum’s choice to be placed on a lease after the directors of Downsview Park received full responsibility for both the lands and buildings in 2006.

De Havilland at Downsview Park. Image courtesy Canadian Air and Space Museum.
The World War II-era airfield was previously owned by the Department of Defence, and then fell into the hands of Crown corporation Lands Canada in 1996..
The museum was among Downsview’s first tenants after the park corporation was created,
around that same time, to redevelop the 575 acres of land on which the airfield and other buildings sit.
“They asked to be put on a lease basis so that they could seek outside funding, and what happened is we, as a park, have an obligation to pay what’s called payments in lieu of taxes (to the government). Tenants pay that,” said Soknacki. “Long story short, they fell in arrears of all of their taxes and what happened is that by 2003, their tax arrears to the City of Toronto were over $100,000. So they worked with us and presumably with other parties to determine whether they could attract other funding, and back in 2008, they indicated to us their preference was to become a tenant.”
The entities worked together between 1999 and 2008 under a profit-sharing agreement for the museum, said Godwin, in two five-year agreements. From his account, the worm turned after Downsview said it did not want to be a part of the museum’s development any more.
“What we had now was a Crown corporation essentially trying to take over a not-for-profit charity. The term of the contract was up, and they decided they wanted us to hand over the museum to them, or sign a lease,” he said. “They’re telling the press we asked for a lease. Yes, that’s true, because the alternative was ‘Get out.’ ”
Financial pressures mount
However that came to be, the museum signed the lease in 2008 under an arrangement that gradually increased its new rent payments from $8,000 to $15,000 a month, Godwin said.
But its financial troubles were far from over. A new board of directors had just taken over the museum to expand it, and found themselves needing to restructure the museum’s operations so it could turn enough of a profit to hand over to Downsview.
“You can imagine it’s pretty difficult to restructure a not-for-profit charity for $15,000 a month in rent in a year and a half. It’s like inventing a business out of thin air,” Godwin said.
“Not to mention the fact that the people running the place were all volunteers. Everyone who was working there, with the exception of two or three people.”
The stress of quickly figuring out alternate sources of revenue, he said, contributed to the mass resignation of directors the board saw in 2009, leaving the museum without leadership for about five to six weeks until a new board was appointed. At the height of the recession and with the board floundering, late rent cheques piled up.
But, Godwin emphasizes, the museum had made up most of the difference and was just seven months behind at the time of its eviction in September 2011.
Godwin and Soknacki differ about how many meetings the museum and park had, with Godwin saying they couldn’t get an audience for their Chairman, and Soknacki countering there were “a number of meetings” to try to help the museum work through its problems. Godwin agreed that the museum staff did meet on several occasions with Bill Bryck but that Soknacki himself refused to meet with the Chairman of the museum.
Meanwhile, the park was slowly completing an assessment of its property to determine which buildings should be redeveloped first. At 65 Carl Hall Rd., where the museum rented about 30,000 square feet, Soknacki said the building had “energy sieve windows” and other problems that would result in about $2.5 million worth of renovations. Internally, the board determined it was best to tear the building down and quietly sought proposals for the space.
“(There were) ones that merit serious consideration. We also had a drag strip, a commercial air base, all sorts of applications.”
Godwin complained the museum was left out of these negotiations, which eventually resulted in a deal with Buckingham Sports to put in an ice rink, under a 25-year lease. Downsview stated it was because they didn’t want to make public some of the stranger deals.
“Frankly,” countered Soknacki, “we would be embarrassed to let people know that we were up for a drag strip. Thank you, but no thank you. (The museum) wasn’t aware of it, nor was anyone outside of the board.”
Ironically in May of 2011 Downsview park posted a construction update on their web site that clearly marked The Canadian Air and Space Museum, presumably as a selling point. Subsequent updates have removed the museum from the map.

Heritage ruckus
At one time, the building where the museum stands now served as a major production facility for the Allies during World War II, producing thousands of Mosquito bombers and Tiger Moth trainers. According to media reports, that history gave the building heritage status that was reflected on the websites of both the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office and Parks Canada – a designation that vanished from the public eye shortly after the museum was evicted.
So vast was the confusion that an Oct. 12 e-mail from Toronto-area MP Mark Adler, addressed to a museum board member, said “in 1992 the site was recognized as a National Heritage Building” and as such he would work with the government to find ways of preserving the museum. A week later, according to Godwin, Adler recanted.
Attempts to gain an interview with the Department of Canadian Heritage went unanswered.
As late as Dec. 6, questions about the museum’s heritage status were raised in the House of Commons, when NDP York-South Weston MP Mike Sullivan asked when the site was “un-designated.”
Its status was not addressed in an answer by Jacques Gourde, a Quebec MP and Conservative parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Works.
While questions remain unanswered on its heritage status, the museum and the board are heading for another deadline: March 31, when the eviction notice officially takes effect. There were no meetings scheduled as of late December.
The museum remains closed, although the board has been able to get inside on occasion. Many of the loaned artifacts are back in their owners’ hands, although others remain. The museum has searched for other locations in vain, bringing the artifacts’ safety down to the wire.
“We had our Christmas party (in the facility),” Godwin said. “It was very sad, because essentially we’re sitting there wondering if it’s the last time anyone will see the inside of this building.”
A petition has been set up with over 10,000 people signing on so far to try and save the museum. The museum is using social media including its Twitter account to keep the public updated.
Updated at 11:19 am ET.

MDA

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Canadian space and science reporter, researcher and consultant. I also am pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota.

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