Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay cooperative hopes for role in future of Finnish Labour Temple

A Thunder Bay cooperative organization is hoping to have a role in the future of the historic Finnish Labour Temple, even though its own efforts to buy the building fell through.

Historic Bay Street building sold to Barrie developer last week; plans include re-opening the Hoito

Thunder Bay's historic Finnish Labour Temple has a new owner. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

A Thunder Bay cooperative organization is hoping to have a role in the future of the Finnish Labour Temple, even though its own efforts to buy the building fell through.

The historic building, located on Bay Street, was recently purchased by Brad McKinnon, a Barrie-based real estate developer with ties to Thunder Bay.

"I loved the Finlandia, the Finnish Labour Temple, the Hoito," McKinnon said Sunday. "It's a fantastic building, and a beautiful piece of architecture."

The building was put on the market in July, after the Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay voted to dissolve and liquidate its assets; the association owed more than $1 million in debt.

McKinnon said he wasn't interested in purchasing the building at its initial $599,000 asking price, which he felt was too high; McKinnon ended up purchasing the building for $375,000.

And now, he's planning on making a few changes to the Finnish Labour Temple. But he won't be changing everything.

Hoito to re-open

The Hoito will be renovated and reopen, McKinnon said, and the Embassy bar will remain place, as well.

"The rest of the building we'd like to turn into high-end apartments," he said. "It's a very expensive building to maintain and operate. We've got to make sure that we keep our head above water, and we can't do that with the current venue. I just don't feel that the hall, the theatre, that aspect of the building is profitable."

McKinnon said he'd like to see 12-15 apartment units created.

"We're working closely with the Heritage Advisory Committee and City of Thunder Bay to try and come up with a plan that is a compromise, that makes the building profitable, but also can still preserve some of the history and charm."

"We're looking into the possibility of doing a walk-through museum attached to the Hoito restaurant, and some sort of historic entranceway."

McKinnon said renovations could start as soon as November.

"We're in the process right now of putting together plans and drawings, and hopefully we can have them approved by the city and the Heritage Advisory Committee as soon as possible," he said.

McKinnon said he hopes to have the Hoito up and running again by next spring, and the apartments ready by next fall.

McKinnon wasn't the only interested buyer. The Finlandia Cooperative of Thunder Bay was also working to purchase the building.

"Of course, I was a little sad, and disheartened a bit," Paula Haapanen, president of the co-op's interim board, said of the sale.

She said it was "unfortunate" that McKinnon's plan to build apartments will result in the loss of some of the building's history.

But, she added, "If you're running any type of operations out of there, you have to make money."

"The approach is different, of course," Haapanen said. "For us, it wasn't about apartments, it was more about having more community come in there, do more things together."

"And that's not necessarily a secure income. You're working on grants and things like that, whereas having residences is pretty guaranteed income."

Haapanen said the co-op was simply unable to raise the money.

"In such a short timeframe, it's a really challenging thing to do," she said. "The situation with [COVID-19] didn't help much for that."

The co-op was hoping to raise about $200,000 through loans provided by its members, and then use that to leverage traditional funding from credit unions.

"Credit unions are cooperatives too, so we wanted that connection," Haapanen said. "We approached a couple of credit unions ... and they were not willing to take that risk."

The co-op was also approached by a group of entrepreneurs that wanted to work together to purchase the building.

"That seemed very positive," Haapanen said. "But one of the key partners' resources, financial and otherwise, were not made available."

"He has ... partners that he reports to, or shares decisions with, and they just didn't want to take the risk, because the building is old," she said. "It's an absolutely reasonable reason to turn it down."

The co-op spoke to other potential partners, but couldn't work out deals before the sale.

Haapanen said the co-op will be contacting everyone who donated money to the effort, to ask if they want their donations refunded.

"It's always been our intention that, if we don't go forward as a co-op with the Finnish Labour Temple somehow, then we'd give the people who were financially supporting us the option to decide whether they want the money back, or pay it forward or something like that," she said.

Haapanen hopes, however, that the co-op will still have a role to play in the future of the Finnish Labour Temple.

"It has given the opportunity to talk about the potential of a co-op," she said. "If the restaurant is a possibility, then turning the restaurant into a co-op would be somehow poetic, because that's how it started in the first place, as a consumer co-op."

McKinnon said it's too early to make that decision.

"I'm hoping that the Finnish community will pull together," he said. "Maybe that leader will be Paula, or somebody else from the board, they pull together and we can come up with a business plan for the restaurant, and we can get that up and running again and have it start turning a profit that can then, in turn, go back to benefit the community."