Oshawa’s Canadian Automotive Museum desires a smoother street forward

Denis Bigioni, Canadian Automotive Museum board president, showcasing the museum’s Isotta Fraschini.

  • Scott Glew and Griffin, 4, at the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa where they got a close-up look at Disney's Lightning McQueen.  -- Metroland file photo.

The Canadian Automotive Museum wants more support from the City of Oshawa.

“Oshawa automotive heritage matters — it matters culturally and it matters economically. We look forward to the City of Oshawa being a meaningful partner in the preservation of our local heritage and the revitalization of downtown Oshawa,” Denis Bigioni, Canadian Automotive Museum Board president, said in a letter.

The museum is a downtown landmark, run out of a nearly century-old former car dealership at 99 Simcoe St. S. After long COVID-19 pandemic closures and with an aging facility, the museum is looking to the future and wants better support to further its mission

“It would be a damn shame to loose the museum from our city. It’s part of our history,” said Regional Councilor Brian Nicholson. “Residents believe there should be a roll for the City to support the automotive museum.”

“They are a valuable asset in our community. We’re willing to help them in every aspect to help them expand their facility. There’s only so much we can do. They’re a unique asset in our city,” said Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter.

At an Oshawa finance committee meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20, a letter from the Canadian Automotive Museum asked for some big changes in how Oshawa supports them:

1. Review of all city funds for external agency cultural funding for 2023.

The auto museum wants the city to look at the funds given to external cultural organizations — this would include Parkwood estate, the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa Museum, Ontario Regiment Museum and the Canadian Automotive Museum — and treat all the agencies more equally in the next budget. The Oshawa system currently uses to distribute the “$1.5 million annually is rudderless and administered in an ad hoc manner,” Bigioni suggested.

“It’s part of our history. It’s just as much of the history of Oshawa as Parkwood,” said Nicholson.

2. Reinstate an annual operating grant.

The city used to support the Canadian Automotive Museum with $25,000 per year in the mid-1990s. At that point, Oshawa’s funding to the museum was cut off, and only resumed in 2015 at an average of $5,000 per year.

The auto museum board wants the city’s annual support to increase to help cover some of the operating costs.

“Independent museums receive an average of 23 per cent of their operating funding from their local municipality. Our request which is below this formula is $50,000 per year, or 18.65 per cent of our 2019 operating budget of $271,000,” Bigioni explained.

Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter said he thought it was unlikely the city council would support reinstating the large operating grant, but there are other ways the city could help.

“They refer to an agreement from the (19)80s and ’90s where the city supported them,” said Carter. “We continue to give them a small grant of $5,000.”

The museum board is concerned the $5,000 grant is to be discontinued in 2023.

3. Support long-term capital needs.

The museum board wants city council to act as a financial partner for future capital projects for the facility maintenance and expansion in downtown Oshawa. Currently, the Canadian Automotive Museum plans to spend $75,000 for safety and security and improvement to the entranceway. The board is asking the city to contribute 50 per cent of the cost.

“This would be a meaningful first step to allow the museum to continue to expand and grow in downtown Oshawa,” added Bigioni.

City council would be much more likely to financially support capital projects, especially one that improves the visitor experience at the museum, Carter said.

“Their building his really old and is eventually going to need some serious upkeep. The building they’re in now is almost 100 years old. Right now they have to take money out of fundraising for upkeep and day-to-day operations,” said Nicholson.

4. Property tax relief.

The auto museum board is looking for help with property taxes. The city said it should apply to MPAC to change the status of their property and lower tax levels. The board said it has run into dead ends asking to have the museum reclassified, and asking school boards about reducing their portion of the tax bill. The board is looking to the city for tax abatement or a grant that equals the museum’s property taxes.

“This would bring us into alignment with other institutions in the city,” Bigioni said.

The annual grant from Oshawa ($5,000) almost covers the city portion of the museum’s property taxes ($5,400) and the other portions of the property tax bill are outside the city’s control, Mayor Carter explained.

“We’ve sent a letter to school boards and the Region asking to reduce taxes. Or the province could pass a law saying all non-profit museums don’t have to pay tax. These are things we have to pursue,” said Nicholson.

The Canadian Automotive Museum request for more support from Oshawa was referred to be considered in the city council budget process in early 2023.

“We want to be helpful. We want to be realistic. We want to see if there’s a way to make sure they thrive,” said Mayor Carter. “I value their presence in our community. It’ll be a council decision. I fully understand the challenges they’re facing. I’m very committed to trying to find a path forward. It’s important to our community.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: In April, the Canadian Automotive Museum came to the Oshawa Finance Committee looking for help with property taxes. This September, the museum board sent a followup letter to the finance committee outlining several ways Oshawa could better support the auto museum.

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