Huntsville Train Station, a year later

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It’s been a little over a year since a consortium made up of local residents John Pantaleo, Adam Caswell and Scott Richardson took over the Huntsville Train Station from the Town of Huntsville for the sum of $2.

Pantaleo said their intent from the start has been to preserve a significant historical asset and get it to the point where it can sustain itself.

“There are certain aspects of Huntsville that the Town can’t afford, or continue subsidizing, so it’s up to the private sector to step in and take over some of these properties like the Madhill Church,” he said.

Pantaleo said he and his partners have put time, money and work into the building, “and yes there has been some fun.” He said all the issues that had been identified by the Town when the trio took over the station have been remedied – things like problems with the furnace, asbestos, and mould.

He said the station’s ownership is registered as a not-for-profit organization, which means any earnings would go back into the building.

The space rented to the Aitchison campaign is on the right, while the Huntsville Suzuki School of Music had the space to the left.

Pantaleo and his partners recently came under fire for what he described as an unfair and inaccurate story in the local media. He said it insinuated that shady dealings were in the works with the departure of the Huntsville Suzuki School of Music as a long-time tenant, and the fact that Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison, on leave while he runs as the Federal Conservative candidate for this area, has rented space at the station for his campaign office.

Pantaleo maintains that the two tenancies, for two different spaces at the station, were unrelated. He said they entered into a short-term lease agreement at market rent for a vacant space with Aitchison. While the lease with the music school, which had been negotiated by the Town, expired on August 31, 2019. Pantaleo said when they took over the station they had to honour that lease, which they did, but when it expired they tried to bring the rental closer to market rate.

“They were only paying $4.75 a square foot, which was about $720 a month, and we honoured their lease and subsidized their business,” he said. Once the lease expired, Pantaleo said they presented the music school with a new lease which he said was the lower-end of the going market rate for commercial space in the Town of Huntsville. “The lease was $12 a square foot, plus half the utilities and half the taxes. It was pretty low-end, pretty normal but they never came back or negotiated or anything,” he said.

What’s next?

Moving forward, Pantaleo said the group is exploring what to do with the space now that the music school is no longer leasing it. They’re considering the possibility of leasing it out again to another entity in order to generate funds but there are parameters associated with the building’s heritage designation that must be followed by anyone renting the space.

Pantaleo and partners are currently under negotiations for this train shed.

He said there are also negotiations currently taking place for the train shed on the property, which CN is currently using as its workspace. He said there are thoughts of using the shed as a kids’ activity area with climbing walls. “But with the lease with CN we have to build them a structure to house them because it’s part of the lease that we picked up,” he explained. “We want to do that because the train shed is actually one of three in Canada and that should be brought back.”

Return of passenger rail 

Pantaleo said communication with the Province regarding the possible return of passenger rail is also ongoing. “We’re looking into it because passenger rail was promised and it’s being talked about and if it does come back we definitely, definitely will embrace that and we definitely have space for it,” he said.

In terms of putting a community kitchen in the station as previously envisioned, that idea is still on track, said Pantaleo. He said they’ve purchased commercial kitchen equipment but “you can’t get everything done at once. I mean we had to deal with the leases, with fixing the building up… it’s taking time but we’re going forward with that.”

He said the idea is to turn the station into an event location and/or lease commercial space to get to a position where the station can generate enough revenue to pay for itself. He said if and when passenger rail returns, they’ll embrace that, too.  In the end, Pantaleo said they went into the venture to preserve the station, “and it seems like the private sector can do that better than the Town.”

Selling the station was the right thing to do: Terziano

Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano said the municipality sold the station because it was becoming a burden on the tax base.

She said when the Town bought the station from CN for a dollar about 16 years ago, it came with a revenue stream with CN leasing half of the building. The other side of the building was converted by a lot of volunteer hours and hard work from the Huntsville Train Station Society, the Suzuki School of Music and other community volunteers. She said, in turn, the Town leased the space to the music school at a subsidized rate, which it could do at the time because it was getting money from CN.

Terziano said as time passed and passenger rail stopped running, the Town lost the revenue it had been getting. She said different community groups used the station but it generated very little money. “Then things obviously start to deteriorate over time just by lack of maintenance inside and outside and the train station became quite a burden on the tax bill.”

The Town spent money on the exterior of the building on things like storm sewers but the interior still needed work, said Terziano. The Province also put forth legislation which would make it mandatory for municipalities to put aside money for capital asset management planning, which meant having to put even more money aside for the station.

“The burden on the taxpayer was not going away with this building as far as we could see,” she said. “Before we even went out for an RFP (request for proposal) this time when the Pantaleo group was successful, we had gone out another time previously.”

Terziano said the first RFP got no response. The second time there were two submissions – one from the Pantaleo group and one from another group who also indicated that they’d require a grant from the municipality in order to move forward. “They didn’t want to have to spend money, they wanted to have it and then the Town still give them a grant… so we weren’t really divesting ourselves of an asset that was costly. So that’s how the Pantaleo group got it, they were really the only people who came in and said we’ll take it on and we’ll take on the cost of cleaning it up which meant fixing the mould, a new furnace and various things like that, and keeping in mind the heritage designation of what they could and couldn’t do with it,” she said.

Terziano said she personally thinks selling the train station was the right move. In terms of the music school, she said they got the space at a subsidized rate for many years, and things don’t go on forever.

“If capital asset planning hadn’t been forced on municipalities by the Province, we wouldn’t be divesting ourselves of certain assets,” she said, referring to the Waterloo building as well as the Brunel Community Hall. “It really puts a huge burden on the tax bill to have to put so much money away every year for these assets. Either the tax bill just starts shooting up through the ceiling or you have to say at some point that you can’t be everything to everyone because really [when]you’re making a decision on what you spend, it’s taxpayers’ money.”

Related stories:

Train Station may be sold to private partnership for “community initiative centre,” historical groups oppose idea
Town to move forward with sale of CN Rail station to private group
Train Station may be sold to private partnership for “community initiative centre,” historical groups oppose idea
Huntsville’s train station must stay, but who will be responsible for its care?
Fate of Huntsville’s train station still up in the air
Citing air quality concerns, the Chamber won’t be moving in to the train station after all

 

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2 Comments

  1. One question only: With Porter Airlines making trips north fast and relatively inexpensive, how badly has that impacted the lobbying to reinstate rail service to Huntsville?

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