Young museum may set sail for New York state

by Sandy Casselman
Press staff

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 commercial venture.

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 insurance fee.

“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 attraction.

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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