Young museum may set sail for New York stateby Sandy Casselman
IROQUOIS – Less than five years old, the seasonal Doran Bay Model Ship
Museum in Iroquois may soon close its doors for good, taking its
historically significant collection south of the border.
Owner Bert Cunningham lobbied Municipality of South Dundas politicians
for support during Tues., March 17’s council meeting, after learning
his property taxes had more than doubled following a Municipal Property
Assessment Corporation (MPAC) appraisal, which deemed the museum a
While the maritime-themed museum charges a nominal fee, which
Cunningham said is often waived, the proceeds do not cover the cost of
managing the private gallery, which includes a roughly $800 per month
“I’m not doing this for money,” he said. “I’m not making money at all.
In fact, I’m losing money. It’s like everybody coming through the door,
I’m handing them a $5 bill.”
Open for three to four months of the year, Cunningham and his wife,
Simla, use part of the museum space as a living room, while the
remainder of the house’s first floor includes a kitchen, washroom, and
stairway to the second storey, where the couple live year-round.
The home, which had an assessed value of $251,000 in 2008, has steadily
risen in worth by MPAC standards to its current total of $585,134
($414,291 residentially and $170,843 commercially) in 2014. Prior to
last year, the home-based museum was not designated commercial. (It was
noted the cottage portion of the Doran Bay business does not fall into
the commercial category.)
Cunningham submitted an appeal to the Assessment Review Board in July 2014. He recently learned a hearing has been set for May.
The Iroquois resident is looking to achieve a policy change in the
provincial government’s handling of private museums, he said, as the
way things currently rest, it seems all but impossible for such an
enterprise to exist in Ontario. Cunningham said he received a letter
from the minister of tourism, culture, and sport suggesting he either
apply for not-for-profit status or donate the collection to another
museum. Becoming a legalized charity, he was told, would not only mean
a change in property assessment, but it would allow him to apply for
grants and funding for all sorts of museum-related needs.
However, Cunningham would lose control and ownership of his unique
collection if he were to take either of these options. When he said he
would simply close the museum he was told that was not good enough, as
the collection would need to be removed from the property before MPAC
would rescind the commercial designation.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong here when the government can
force someone to donate their private collection,” Cunningham said.
“It’s a sick situation. There is no level playing field, and the whole
thing is geared to bureaucracy. The whole thing is geared to them
controlling you. I’ve already paid for this collection, why would I
hand it over?”
In his plea to council, Cunningham referred to the Glengarry Pioneer
Museum, which has had its taxes waived by the municipality for roughly
25 years, he said. However, before politicians began their discussion
of Cunningham’s situation, Mayor Evonne Delegarde informed her
colleagues the Municipal Act does not allow for municipalities to
assist, directly or indirectly, industrial or manufacturing businesses
and can therefore not waive taxes for the South Dundas tourist
The model ship venture was not originally intended to become a museum,
Cunningham said. He started his collection when he lived on the island
of Mauritius, where he worked in customs. He commissioned local talent
to produce a few model ships for his office. The fascination grew, and
he commissioned more. He did the research, chose the ship to be
commissioned, drew up the sketch, and decided on the materials to be
used. When completed, the models went into storage.
After roughly 10 years, Cunningham decided to move home to Canada,
bringing his collection with him. The crates were in Iroquois for
several years before Cunningham’s father Glenn suggested he make them
available to the public.
With more than 120 models completed and roughly 50 of them on display,
Cunningham’s collection is much more extensive than his current space
will allow, and while he had plans to build extensions to the west and
south of his home, those are now on hold. Although he is not opposed to
paying some commercial tax, he will not move forward in his current
location if policy changes are not made.
“When you double someone’s taxes, you penalize them for being here,”
Cunningham said. “Taxes have not only killed this museum, but killed
any plan to have this expanded to a world class museum.”
When asked how long it would take for him to make a decision following
the May verdict, Cunningham said he will know his plans the next day.
Without an incentive to stay, he is already in talks with an interested
party in Clayton, N.Y., where the local history buff says the intention
is to erect a building to house and display the entire collection.
In his quest to keep the collection in South Dundas, Cunningham has, so
far, secured a letter of support from Stormont, Dundas, and South
Glengarry MP Guy Lauzon, and vocal support from MPP Jim McDonell.
Led by Councillors Archie Mellan and Marc St. Pierre, the March 17
meeting saw South Dundas’ council agree to give written support for the
upcoming appeal, vouching for the importance of the museum to the
municipality’s tourist traffic.
“The ideal situation here would be somehow this whole collection would
be put on display in a purpose-built building on this site, and not
taxed out of existence,” Cunningham said.
The property on which the museum is located was the site of the American invasion in 1813, he added.
“The American Army landed right here on the east side of that bay,” he
said. “They consolidated here before they marched off to Montreal.”
Part of the collection on display includes a host of ships from the War
of 1812. However, more than half the collection is crated and stored in
Cunningham’s basement, including a whole collection that traces the
history of the Great Lakes, all of the ships of discovery, and more.
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