TORONTO - The transformation is almost complete. What was once the epitome of the Italian Canadian identity in the GTA is nothing more than a “rent collector”.
Formerly known as the Italian Canadian Benevolent Corporation (a not for profit, charitable organization), the ICBC/Villa Charities transformed the South-West corner of Lawrence and Dufferin into a “cultural-community- social service centre” emulated by other emerging ethno-cultural communities in Toronto.
A model, if you will, for others to copy or surpass. Some managed to improved upon it. No-one out did it for its collective ability to generate growth, expand its vision, provide service, engage the community at large, political clout and for its fund-raising initiatives at both the corporate and popular levels.
As recently as 2004, in a relatively short two-month campaign, its own newsletter boasted receipts in the range of $1 million garnered from 267 individuals and companies who donated amounts ranging from $100 to $50,000 plus - eight in the range of $20,000 - $50,000. Among the 267 were various Board members.
From its rather “humble origins”, ICBC/Villa Charities built the Villa Colombo (now a chronic care centre, in both Toronto and Vaughan), seniors residences (Caboto Terrace, Casa Del Zotto; and acquired Casa Abruzzo), Columbus Centre, “established” Mens Sana and Vita Community Living and promoted various cultural events through the Carrier Art Gallery and associated activities and programs. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list.
The real estate value of the acquisitions made by the Mens Sana/Vita Community Living boards is estimated by some today to be in the $100 million range.
Submissions to CRA by Villa Charities suggest that the real estate value of the remaining holdings is also in the $100 million range, although some of it is encumbered by mortgages. All the asset “build-up” was aided by government subsidies, property appreciation and community fundraising.
It has not all been rosy. For example, Mens Sana and Community Living have separated themselves from ICBC/Villa Charities. Title to its real estate came into dispute as former affiliates disagreed about governance and process.
Organizations resident in the Columbus Centre began to be the subject of critical attention. The Ministry of Education and City social and Community Services conducted a forensic audit of the Day Care program following some disturbing incidents and questionable accounting practices.
The Carrier Art Gallery slowly saw its assets “decommissioned”. The Di Giovanni library was effectively shut down and its Dante collection transferred to the University of Toronto by its original owner.
The Health Club was allowed deteriorate to the point that its membership was halved in short order. The once vaunted Boccaccio restaurant struggled to stay afloat as the Organization played with its ambiance, its menu and its availability to the public.
Maybe it all had to do with the “master plan” to tear down the facilities at 901 Lawrence Ave W and replace everything with yet another oversized school and condominium towers. That project died. Thanks in part to the mobilization of the Community and interested members under the umbrella of the CASA group led by Ian McDonald.
He has now been barred from the premises by the CEO of Villa Charities and Villa Charities Inc. Perhaps there is no connection.
What is left of the original vision for the community? Villa Colombo? According to a statement by the Chair made at a public meeting, 99.9% of its operations are financed by government programs.
But the organization still needs money, he said. Villa Charities wants to make the area a “destination place”. How? For who?
So far, according to the “buzz” everywhere, they have entered into a lease agreement with one entity (a Montessori school, Leonardo Da Vinci), and confirmed with another (Telelatino), and are embarking on yet another makeover of the Boccaccio Restaurant.
FletcherConsultancy, an organization hired to help them in their “visioning” had these priceless observations to make: “large donors from the past appear to be disengaged” and “Italian-Canadians have a reputation of not coming together to raise money”.
Poof! Just like that, everything that happened over the last almost fifty years blown up in smoke. Thank you for off-loading neglect, disinterest and incompetence onto the rest of us with that drive-by smear. By the way, the $100,000 notionally earmarked for improving the health club – deferred maintenance really – appears to have been put off indefinitely.