Villa Colombo at the crossroads

di Joe Volpe del March 28, 2019

TORONTO - I wanted to leave Villa Charities’ briefing on its “Visioning Sessions” with an upbeat disposition – both as a member of the Community and as a representative of the Corriere Canadese.

Both in a personal and corporate capacity, I acknowledge an interest vested in the concept of a Cultural/Community Centre that 901 Lawrence Ave had come to represent for Canada’s immigrant communities and the Italian in particular.

Thanks to its ill-fated redevelopment plans for 901 Lawrence Ave., the crew that is at the helm of Villa Charities has, in recent years, severely damaged the reputation encapsulated in the icon that was the Columbus Centre/Villa Colombo (CC/VC).

Those “Visioning Sessions” have stripped away whatever vestiges of altruistic/community value was draped over the CC/VC. Villa Charities now is merely a foundation and holding company that manages the rent from three apartment complexes and operates the long-term care centres at the Villa Colombo sites in Toronto and Vaughan.

Had it not for the membership at Columbus Centre and the interest of their organization, CASA, the site would already have been razed to the ground and Condominium construction- ready, as per contractual agreement co-signed by the then CEO, Pal Di Iulio, and his counterpart, the then Director at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Angela Gauthier.

Several CASA members went to the microphone in entirely respectful interventions imploring the Chair of Villa Charities and its CEO to engage the community in the hope of recovering the goodwill built up over a 40-year period and frittered away in the last five or so in pursuit of a revenue-driven project.

“Invest in proper programmes, in qualified sta©, in proper promotion in maintaining the facilities and you’ll need more space for the returning people who have left and others who want to join”, pleaded Anthony a long-time member and supporter of CC/VC. CC used to have in excess of 7,000 members, now reduced to just over 3,000 because the Board and Administration have not demonstrated interest in keeping the place alive

.Christine Genowefe was equally strong in emphasizing the cultural value of the Carrier Art Gallery and its abandoned potential. “The gallery (Rotonda) is a pearl, 4,400 square feet of cultural space, second only to the Art Gallery of Ontario in size and prestige”, we should revitalize its potential, she pleaded.

Chair Sandro Veltri seemed, at first, empathetic and supportive. “We are an Italian Cultural Centre… and we have plans to turn it into a ’destination place’; we want to attract Italians and non from anywhere in Southern Ontario”, he said, “we are working on some plans.”

Those plans also include “renting out some space” at CC, according to the CEO, to tenants who have a history with the Italian community, although he did not mention them by name. Another Casa member was cautious. “The trust is just not there. You have not detached yourself from the past,” he challenged.

He wanted to know why VCI had not removed the redevelopment signs that still populate the site. Chair Veltri tried to put the concern to rest: “That Appeal (the redevelopment/ reimagine project) is not going forward”. He tried to explain that it has more to do with a potential development of Chronic -Care spaces on the north end of the VC building.

The signs are a “placeholder” signal to Municipal authorities that VCI may wish “potentially” to use an application already before the OMB to exercise its “options” for that purpose. “So, you are asking us to trust you?” observed the member. It did not appear to this writer that the crowd (split about 50-50 between sta©, and community members) was yet convinced.

The CEO repeated his refrain that “we are trying to get revenue”. One of the three “takeaways” in the Visioning Report by the Consultancy group was “monetizing our resources”. Oh!

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