At Historic Guild Park Site, City of Toronto Tries to Balance Serving People While Seeking Profits
The following article will appear in the Winter 2022/23 issue of the Guildwood Village News & Views
Written by John P. Mason, Director, GVCA, and President, Friends of Guild Park
Stepping inside the wood and glass doors of the restored Guild Inn for a meal at the refurbished restaurant, or enjoy displays of works by notable artists, or to attend a community meeting remains a dream for residents of Guildwood Village and the thousands of public visitors who come to Guild Park & Garden each month.
At the start of 2023, the beautifully renovated and modernized facility, known as Guild Inn Estate, continues to operate entirely as rental space for private events. The community and regular visitors at the surrounding Guild Park remain shut out. Unwelcoming signs that state: “Private Property No Public Access,” are posted on the building’s white stucco walls.
Long-time local residents know that the City of Toronto’s original plans for the old Guild Inn were much different. Based on years of public discussions with volunteers from the GVCA and the Guild Renaissance Group, City officials promised to restore the historic building – left badly dilapidated after decades of neglect – to serve the community and all Toronto residents.
Partners for 40 Years
The City’s concept was to turn the vacant structure into a destination with two roles. The public would enjoy dining and discussion, with a restaurant and community meeting space. Private guests would rent commercial space, for weddings, parties and special events.
The whole project would operate through a 40-year agreement between the City of Toronto and its chosen private partner, Dynamic Hospitality and Entertainment, the only company that met the City’s selection criteria.
The City required a partner with the financial ability to rebuild and enlarge the almost forgotten Guild Inn structure and bring it up to the City’s stringent specifications. It meant Dynamic Hospitality invested about $15 million into the project.
Those ambitious plans were in keeping with the legacy of public hospitality founded by the first private owners of the renowned Guild Inn, Rosa and Spencer Clark. They were the remarkable art lovers and community builders who ran the site from 1932 to 1978, originally as an artists’ community called The Guild of All Arts.
How the old “Guild” evolved into a modern facility was covered in the recent News & Views article, “The Dilemma at Guild Park: Public Destination / Private Facility” (Fall 2022 issue).
That article opened the floodgates about people’s experiences and expectations at the two-storey, Arts and Crafts-style structure, built in 1912 in the middle of today’s Guild Park.
Some readers described their memorable meals and enjoyable events from the Clark era. Others told about more recent experiences with Guild Inn Estate, when the dining was less than stellar, on those limited occasions when the restaurant was actually open and their reservations hadn’t got lost or cancelled without notice by the operator.
A Petition about Promises
These strong local reactions to the News & Views article led to creating an on-line petition to gauge the extent of public support for reopening the restored Guild Inn, with a restaurant and appropriate access for anyone coming to Guild Park.
In November, volunteers from the not-for-profit organization, Friends of Guild Park, launched an online petition called “Fix the Broken Promises at Historic Guild Park & Gardens.” It outlined how the City of Toronto promised a decade ago to restore the former Guild Inn and welcome the public on the premises with:
· a first-class restaurant,
· City-provided meeting space, and
· appropriate public facilities, such as art displays and washrooms, to serve the thousands of monthly visitors who come year-round to this popular destination.
The petition also noted that as of late 2022, Guild Park visitors couldn’t step inside the restored Guild Inn. The restaurant wasn’t open, there was no meeting space as promised and no one was allowed in to see the City’s own collection of public art displayed throughout Guild Inn Estate.
As a result, the facility’s private operator was able to rent all the commercial space for paid events. While none of the City’s promised benefits were provided to Toronto taxpayers and the public, the City continued to provide the operator with municipal tax exemptions, a benefit worth about $220,000 a year.
Local & Global Support
The petition by Friends of Guild Park asked people to support its call to action: That the City re-open the Guild Inn to the public and have City officials enforce the provisions of its original operating agreements with Dynamic Hospitality.
People recognized that this situation was both unfair and wrong. Support for the petition was immediate, coming both locally and globally. In the first 10 days, more than 1,800 people from across Scarborough and Toronto, even 11 countries worldwide, added their names to the petition.
Of these initial petition supporters, about 70% were from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), with:
· 40% from Scarborough,
· 20% from the rest of the City of Toronto, and
· 10% from elsewhere in the GTA.
The other 30% of supporters were from:
· the rest of Ontario,
· nine other provinces,
· the U.S., and
· international destinations
The petition was further promoted by the local advocacy group, Scarborough Community Renewal Organization. The petition also got attention from officials at both the City of Toronto and Dynamic Hospitality.
Before these interim petition results reached the office of local City Councillor, Paul Ainslie, staff from Toronto’s Corporate Real Estate Division had begun reviewing the terms under which Guild Inn Estate operates. This division is responsible for managing the leasing agreements with Dynamic Hospitality, and the leases for all other City properties.
Dynamic’s response to the petition was to state its on-site restaurant “was not supported by the community.” It added that “for insurance purposes,” Dynamic was required to install the private property signs “to limit liability.” The company also estimated that for 2022, its commercial operations at Guild Inn Estate will generate about $150,000 in rent to the City.
According to the City’s Real Estate staff, these same agreements do require Guild Inn Estate to operate a restaurant and provide community space. Running a restaurant and providing community access are legal obligations agreed to by both the City and Dynamic when they signed the agreements almost a decade ago. The City intended Guild Inn Estate to be more than a private event space for rent. The public amenities on-site aren’t optional.
This recent information from the Corporate Real Estate Division confirmed what local volunteers have maintained for years that:
· a public restaurant and community meeting space are integral to Guild Inn Estate operations, and
· the original operating agreements give the City authority to make this happen.
But persuading City officials to act on this is proving difficult. For years, the City has allowed Guild Inn Estate to operate in ways that maximize its commercial operations, without due regard for the public’s use of this tax-subsidized facility. Examples include:
· Converting the public restaurant into rental space
· Setting rates for meeting space that are unaffordable for most community groups
· Allowing Guild Inn Estate to operate as a private facility, preventing the public from entering
· Not enforcing park permit requirements, so private guests at Guild Inn Estate can avoid paying the usual fees for photography, amplified sound and using popular park sites, such as the Greek Theatre.
· Ignoring violations of Guild Park regulations by event guests, such as using smoke effects, operating unlicensed drones, littering, creating excessive noise, damaging park features, even threatening performers and their stage equipment on-site.
“Temporary” Tent Issues
Guild Inn Estate has also benefited from more recent agreements with the City, which have affected the visitor experience at Guild Park. These agreements were negotiated without public notice.
Among the most noticeable is permitting Guild Inn Estate to install seasonal tents over the entire south patio and terrace of the premises. This three-year agreement was made in 2020 as a “temporary” arrangement to deal with Covid regulations. These tents convert outdoor space that used to be public into an additional rentable area for outdoor events.
The tents are in place from spring to fall. During this time, the tents:
· block wheelchair access along a newly built paved path behind the building
· violate provincial regulations that protect heritage views at Guild Park,
· prevent Guild Park visitors from using this area, and
· become a popular spot for private outdoor parties with music loud enough to disturb park visitors and residents.
Despite the lessening of Covid restrictions on private events, Guild Inn Estate is requesting to continue using these tents for seasonal events until the fall of 2024.
It’s been more than five years since Guild Inn Estate opened its beautifully rebuilt and refurbished facility. In that time, the GVCA, other Guild Park volunteers and the community have watched as the facility keeps its doors closed to the public.
Based on the many public documents relating to Guild Inn Estate operations, it’s apparent that City officials are caught between conflicting public and business interests.
On one hand, City officials promised that the new facility would be an asset to the community and all Toronto. The City clearly listened to Guildwood Village residents when officials decided that a restaurant and other public amenities are required at this site. City staff then incorporated these requirements – along with significant tax exemptions for the restored building – in its 40-year agreements with the private operator.
On the other hand, the revenue-sharing provisions contained in the same agreements emphasize maximizing profits. The City earns more when Guild Inn Estate rents more commercial space. This means the City can get more revenue by allowing the operator to rent all the facility for private events, without providing any public benefits.
From this perspective, running a restaurant and providing community space at Guild Inn Estate isn’t in the City’s financial interests. What’s best for the City, according to Dynamic Hospitality, operators of the Guild Inn Estate, is to keep the facility entirely a commercial rental space.
This is the message Dynamic officials have long taken when speaking to community reps and to City officials about the importance of keeping the building an all-rental facility. This may be why Dynamic’s two managing partners each made the maximum allowable contribution of $1,200 to the 2018 election campaigns of both local City Councillor Paul Ainslie and Mayor John Tory.
Private or Public?
Decisions are being made at Toronto City Hall that will determine how the former Guild Inn operates for the next generation. The question is: Will Guild Inn Estate become:
· a private commercial business that, for the balance of its 40-year lease, operates just for paying guests, then shares part of its revenue with the City? or
· a public attraction that serves Guildwood Village, the people of Toronto and everyone who visit Guild Park to enjoy the site’s historic, natural and public features?
Members of the GVCA and Friends of Guild Park, along with thousands of supporters, strongly believe that this building has an important role as a public facility. A place that welcomes the world to Guild Park, a unique and inspiring public site in the heart of Guildwood Village. A place where all types of people can view art, nature and architecture… and have the opportunity to meet, enjoy a coffee and order a meal.
This is how the original Guild Inn operated for almost 50 years, when owners Rosa and Spencer Clark hosted artists, events, local residents and international guests.
To make this a reality for the 21st Century, decisions about Guild Park must strike a balance between commerce and public service – a balance that currently doesn’t exist. If today’s conditions continue, Guild Inn Estate will keep operating until 2055 as a private, tax-subsidized facility open only for paying customers, not the general public.