TIMMINS, Ont. - A tourist attraction celebrating country-pop singer Shania Twain has officially become a $10-million money pit of taxpayer dollars.
The Shania Twain Centre in this northern Ontario community permanently closes its doors today, barely a dozen years after its grand opening, and will be demolished to become part of an open-pit gold mine.
A sinkhole of taxpayer money, the centre consumed some $10 million in government funds for its construction in 2000-2001, and racked up more than $1 million in operating deficits in the years since.
Grant applications to the Ontario and federal governments in the 1990s projected annual attendance of 50,000 tourists by 2005.
Twain, now 47, grew up poor in Timmins, and got her fledgling start singing in local bars before striking it rich on the world stage in 1995.
But the sleek, modern structure, featuring displays of Twain memorabilia along with gold-mining artifacts, has drawn no more than 15,000 people in any year.
In the end, every resident of this hardscrabble, century-old mining town of 47,000 was shelling out $7 a year just to keep the lights on. And by 2010, each visitor to the centre was being subsidized to the tune of $33.72.
It was supposed to be the other way around, with the centre generating enough revenue to at least break even — that would require about 33,500 paying visitors annually — while filling local hotels and restaurants with tourists.
"We probably should have taken a better look at the numbers to ensure the expectations could be met," Mayor Tom Laughren said of the planning that happened long before he took office.
A 2011 financial analysis showed that Timmins city council faced continuing operating deficits of at least $233,000 a year no matter what future business plan it chose, whether expansion or scaling back.
So council last month announced a deal to sell the property to mining firm Goldcorp Inc. (TSX:G) for $5 million, just half of the tax dollars spent for construction.
Goldcorp, which will officially acquire the property June 28, plans to demolish the structure to make the gold-seeded land underneath part of a massive open-pit mine being developed adjacent to the town.
Recent media reports have suggested the centre cost as little as $3.7 million to build. But a May 2011 analysis by PKF Consulting Inc. in Toronto says the figure was actually about $10 million for all construction, including the building, site development and upgrades to the co-located gold-mine tour attraction.
The entire 65-acre site is to be razed, including the gold-mine tour facilities, and added to Vancouver-based Goldcorp's planned open pit.
For the last week, local residents have been picking over merchandise at the gift shop offered for up to 75 per cent off, including hockey jerseys emblazoned 'STC.' The sale was expected to bring in at least $25,000.
The sad end of the once-bright hopes for the centre began last May, when Twain's management company repatriated most of her memorabilia — including an entire tour bus — to Las Vegas, where the singer now has a regular show.
The city dropped the $9 adult admission fee to the Twain exhibits last summer, in recognition that only few items were left to see, including four dresses.
Municipal officials say Shania Twain and her management company, Maple Leaf Productions, were highly supportive of the centre over the years, and they lay no blame at her feet.
Instead, the city's tourism manager says passion trumped reason when planning took place in the late 1990s, with provincial and federal funding agencies buying in.
"The projections were extremely ambitious," says Guy Lamarche of discussions that happened before his time in the job.
"When people come forward to support projects, and bring a huge passion to projects, sometimes things get skewed. And in this case the projections never materialized — they were way off."
Mayor Laughren cites a series of problems for the failure of the centre, but calls the lack of local support by Timmins citizens a big factor.
Adds Lamarche: "The old adage 'build it and they will come'? Forget it. If you build it, you better be prepared to market it."
The city plans to place remaining Twain memorabilia and mining artifacts on display around the community, including the airport, library and even street corners.
But the fate of the $5 million in proceeds from the coming property sale is not yet clear. The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp., a provincial agency, paid $5 million into the construction project under an agreement with the city that runs until March 31, 2018.
The NOHFC gave prior written permission for the sale to Goldcorp "with conditions relating to the earnings from the sale," said Julia Bennett, spokeswoman for Ontario's Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.
She did not spell out the conditions, but said "negotiations are underway to determine the next steps to get the best use of taxpayer dollars for growth in the north."
FedNor, the federal investment fund for Northern Ontario, provided $500,000 for the construction in a contribution agreement that expired in 2002. A spokesman said the agency has no claim on the sale proceeds.