Future of Silver Birch boathouse questioned

Silverbirch boathouse, 1934
The Silverbirch boathouse under construction in 1934.
PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives

The question: where is the best place in the Beach to spend a Thursday evening to kick off Easter weekend? If you answered ‘the Balmy Beach Club’, you wouldn’t be alone. However, the crowd  that packed the hall at the club on March 28 were not there for a drink and a laugh.

Well over 100 vocal boat owners and other area residents packed into the Balmy Beach Club on March 28 to discuss the future of the Silver Birch boathouse, which remains unclear after parts of a letter sent by the city to boat owners with space in the boathouse seemed to be recanted. City officials remain steadfast that the city will no longer operate the storage facility. By the time the meeting degenerated into shouts and jeering, more questions had been asked than answered.

The letters mailed to boat owners with watercraft in the Silver Birch boathouse informed them that they must vacate the space by the end of October, as the city was planning to farm out operation of the boathouse. Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon has previously stated the city isn’t interested in operating a storage facility.

Ryan Glenn, Manager, Business Services for Parks, Forestry and Recreation previously said the cost of operations is significantly higher than the money generated by permit fees. Many boat owners at the meeting agreed the fees were too low.

Susan Bartleman, Manager of Community Recreation for Toronto and East York District, said the money spent on operating the facility comes from “programming dollars,” however, when asked directly how much money the boathouse earns versus the cost of operation, she said it “ranges from roughly breaking even to making a bit.”

Reaction to the initial letter appears to be based on the proposal for an outside operator to offer boat rentals, as well as the possibility of a café of some sort – wording which was included in the letter along with mention of a Request For Proposals (RFP), despite statements from McMahon that the process is only beginning. She said the café was mentioned only as a general suggestion of what may be considered for the site, not a requirement or a done deal.

“If people don’t want food, that’s easy to take out,” she said. “It’s not turning it into Coney Island, we’re not putting in a parking lot or turning it into a tourist destination.”

Other concerns were raised over the viability of a boat rental business based on open water on Lake Ontario. A number of attendees stood up to reinforce the unpredictability and danger of paddling on the Great Lakes, not to mention potential liability issues with renting human-powered watercraft to possibly inexperienced paddlers.

As the chorus of disapproval grew, Bartleman emphasized that an RFP has not been issued yet, and she and McMahon both repeated several times that it was very early in the process.

“I know a lot of you think this is a done deal, and I hope that slowly your minds are changing,” said Bartleman.

That lack of any sense of certainty or formal process was one of the main concerns raised by Allie Harris, a member of the Beaches Recreation Centre Advisory Council. The Rec Centre is currently in charge of staffing the facility during the summer.

“I don’t believe we need an RFP. What I do believe we need is a proper process,” she said, adding that any group operating the boathouse needs to have governance and be accountable.

While the discussion covered the possibility of a non-profit or new ‘friends of’ group taking over operations, the fact the city’s letter mentions RFPs and firm dates is disconcerting to those concerned about accountability.

“Whatever process is put in place, it does have to have governance,” said Harris, listing off standard non-profit policies and procedures such as written terms of reference, recorded minutes, official meetings and recorded votes.

Local historian Gene Domagala summarized what may be the foundation of much of the concern about the fate of the boathouse, despite many reassurances to the contrary from the city representatives present at the meeting.

“All I want to do is make sure that this damn boathouse does not get ripped down,” he said.

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