At a special shareholder meeting on Tuesday evening, shareholders of the Toronto Estonian House voted 67 percent in favor of the Madison Avenue project for a new Estonian center.
In 1960, following years of unsuccessful attempts to purchase real estate and the short-lived ownership of a property on Merton Street in 1959, Estonian House Limited, established in 1951, purchased the former Chester Public School building at 958 Broadview Avenue, where it established the current Toronto Estonian House (TEM).
The original building dates back to 1891, with two additions built in 1963 and 1976 to expand the building for use by various entities, including the Estonian Credit Union (ECU), Heinsoo Insurance, the Consulate General of Estonia in Toronto, a café, a store and a shooting range operated by the Toronto Estonian Rifle and Pistol Club (TERP). The facilities have also been in regular use by the Toronto Estonian Schools, Estonian boy scouts and girl guides, a number of choirs and a folk dance troupe, among other diaspora community organizations.
In recent years, however, both the long-term economic viability of the Estonian House as well as the state of the building itself, in need of prohibitively costly overhauls, have been ongoing sources of concern.
According to a letter by CPA Linda Veltmann, current TEM board treasurer, published by Canadian-Estonian paper Estonian Life, TEM shareholders in April 2012 approved with 97.5 percent support directing the board to "solicit viable proposals for Estonian House 2 leveraging the value of our existing land asset." The board made two attempts to redevelop the property as a joint condominium building-community center in the current location, in January and September of 2016, with both deals falling through after proving too risky in the board's judgement. Veltmann also noted that the TEM has no capital reserves to pay for significant repairs to the current property.
In 2016, an independent auditor also noted "...uncertainty related to the unpredictability of major repairs and expense. This condition indicates the existence of a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt on the Company's ability to continue as a going concern."
The Madison Avenue proposal
Tartu College, named after Estonia's second biggest city and located at 310 Bloor Street, on the corner of Madison Avenue in downtown Toronto, is a second hub for the city's Estonian community. The building operates university residences providing housing primarily for University of Toronto students, a business model that financially supports on-site facilities dedicated to the Estonian community, including an event hall and rooms used by Estonian fraternities, sororities and other academic organizations and cultural activities. In 2009, the Estonian Studies Centre, whose objective was to consolidate Candian-Estonians' libraries and archives for the proposed Museum of Estonians Abroad (VEMU), was also established at Tartu College.
The resolution presented to TEM shareholders involved a proposal by the boards of three major community organizations — the Estonian Credit Union (ECU), the Estonian Foundation of Canada (EFC) and Tartu College (TC) — to develop a new Estonian cultural center adjacent to the existing Tartu College on Madison Avenue, thus providing a new centralized home for the Estonian community in Toronto.
The resolution stressed that the project would only be viable with the sale of the current Estonian House property on Broadview, but that a final decision would not be made on the sale of the current facility unless and until the Madison Avenue proposal was deemed to be economically viable, which is to be determined in the upcoming due diligence process.
Tuesday night's vote
Following a series of town halls and smaller meetings with community organizations as well as campaigns by community members both in favor of and against the proposal to replace the current Estonian House, which has been a home to the city's diaspora community for over 55 years, a total of 3,207 ballots were cast by TEM shareholders at a special shareholder meeting on Tuesday night, with 67 percent, or just over 2/3, voting in favor of moving forward with the Madison Avenue project.
The preliminary budget for the 25,000 square foot — or 2,300 square meter — proposed facility, to be updated during the due diligence period, is $18 million, which includes land purchase costs as well as engineering, legal and other related costs. The majority of the costs are expected to be covered through the sale of the TEM property, while the ECU, EFC and TC have also each conditionally pledged additional financing toward the proposed project as well.
"The Estonian House shareholders voted to begin the due diligence process to build a new Estonian center on Madison Avenue," said Ellen Valter, chairman of the ECU, one of the three organizations who put together the proposal voted on by shareholders on Tuesday night. "If the project is shown to be viable, the Estonian House land and building will be sold. Our community is realistic about the need to secure a viable home that will serve us for the next several generations. The real work starts now."
According to Valter, the board and CEO of the Estonian Credit Union will support the due diligence proces with available resources and expertise. "We hope that this project will not only resolve the insurmountable difficulties faced by the current building but also result in a signature facility in Toronto that serves our own community and showcases Estonian culture while contributing to the fabric of the city itself," said the chairman.
Concerns remain for some community members
A number of concerns remain for community members skeptical of or against the Madison Avenue project, including the likelihood of severely limited or no on-site free parking at the new site, accessibility for families traveling into downtown Toronto from surrounding suburbs and nearby towns, whether or not the new facility will be able to house everyone currently using the Estonian House on Broadview Avenue as well as questions regarding the ownership and management of the future facility and the fate of current TEM shareholders.
The executive of the Toronto Estonian Rifle and Pistol Club, for example, who had pledged conditional financial support of $25,000 and labor in support of the renovation of the current site, released a statement in early April stating that they did not support the Madison Avenue project in its current proposed form as it did not include plans for a shooting range. The Toronto Estonian Chess Club and Economic Club likewise released statements against the proposed relocation from the current TEM site.
Many yet unfinalized details and more concrete figures will be settled during the six-month due diligence process, however, which is intended to address the project's key unresolved issues.
The joint statement released by the heads of Tartu College, ECU, EFC and TEM likewise addressed the ownership issue, explaining that preliminary advice from their legal advisors expect the TEM to continue as a legal entity, developing the Madison Avenue project as a nonprofit corporation.
Nevertheless, many members of the Toronto Estonian community, to date one of the largest diaspora communities in the world outside of Estonia itself, have expressed optimism regarding the landmark decision to move forward with the project to build a new Estonian center on Madison Avenue, which, if successful, would be the first new such large-scale facility to be built specifically for use by an Estonian diaspora community in North America in more than a generation. Many people who were initially skeptical of or against the new project have since changed their minds as well.
Silvi Verder, who served as teacher and later principal of the Toronto Estonian Schools for a total of 40 years and remains involved on the administrative end of the Estonian Girl Guides in Canada, both of which utilize the current Estonian House on Broadview Avenue, admitted that her decision to accept the resolution did not come easily.
"We have lived with the faults for so long that we don't even notice, or we think it's okay," she said in reference to the current building's leaky roof, mold and electrical issues, among other major concerns long cited by members of the community. "We can look at our situation with emotion and wish that the problems would go away; we can dream that they can be fixed and not cost the millions that they say; we can hope that the fixes don't cause disruptions in our community activities. The truth is that the renovations would be an endless financial drain and our whole community would be sucked dry of any funds that we have."
Verder said that when the new project was presented, she was totally against it, as, like many other community members, she and her family had been deeply personally invested in the current Estonian House for decades. "It wasn't until I was invited to a small group meeting where my concerns were very sincerely answered that I changed my mind," she explained. "With tears in my eyes, I realized that there is only one solution and that is to go with the new plan. It's not perfect, but it's workable. The cherry on top is that our younger generation is all behind it. The future is in their hands and we have to trust them to carry it forward, as our parents trusted us."
Editor: Aili Vahtla