The Elgin Military Museum plans to borrow a page from Rimouski, Que., where the Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Pere opened a sub museum in 2008 after acquiring a decommissioned vessel Maritime Command planned to sell for scrap metal. An impressive 91,000 visitors came to see the museum in the first year, despite a somewhat remote location. Port Burwell, at the heart of southern Ontario on Lake Erie, is expected to attract even more visitors with its HMCS Ojibwa sub museum. (Photo courtesy Espace Voyage)

How Port Burwell landed the big one:
Submarine museum to attract 100,000-plus visitors a year

It could be a matter of weeks, or it could be months, but when the decommissioned Cold War-era submarine HMCS Ojibwa arrives in Port Burwell, you can bet the event won’t go unnoticed.  
The entire village of about 1,200 residents is expected to be there to welcome the sub, saved from the scrap heap by the Elgin Military Museum, thanks to a $1.9-million federal community adjustment grant.  

“Everyone is so excited,” says Lynn Acre, who did not seek re-election on Oct. 25 as mayor of the Municipality of Bayham, which includes Port Burwell. “People want to track it as it makes its way here from Nova Scotia. When it goes through Welland, there’s talk of having a large banner with a ‘welcome to Port Burwell’ message. And in Port Burwell, I’m sure the pier and the beach and the riverside will be lined with people cheering.”  

Even from a distance, the Ojibwa will be hard to miss. In fact, it is so huge that once it is pulled out of Lake Erie and deposited onto its cradle on a vacant chunk of municipal property in the heart of Port Burwell, it can probably be seen all the way down the shoreline 38 kilometres west to Port Stanley, which had been given first dibs as host to the tourist attraction.  

The Elgin Military Museum, based in St. Thomas, believed that the Oberon-class submarine, which would be the showcase exhibit in a new museum that is expected to draw 100,000-plus visitors each year, would fit perfectly on the east berm at Port Stanley’s harbour, part of the port lands newly acquired from the federal government.  

In preparation for a public meeting on the matter in late summer, the Municipality of Central Elgin, which includes Port Stanley, placed seven school buses one behind the other, two deep, to help residents visualize how much space the sub and museum would take up on the harbour. That’s 400 by 200 feet of land. Above it, the submarine’s tower would soar about five storeys.  

That’s big. Very big.  

“We thought it was a done deal,” Acre told of the sub’s move to Port Stanley. 

Heard it through the grapevine

Even before the public meeting on Aug. 10, there were hints that the Port Stanley site might not work after all, because the land being divested by Transport Canada first needed to be cleaned up before being handed to the municipality. And with the Elgin Military Museum’s grant contingent on the submarine being moved from Halifax and placed at its new site by March 31, 2011, a timing problem lurked.   

It was at a social event sponsored by the Otter Valley Chamber of Commerce in June that Acre was told a final decision had not been made. The mayor was urged to contact the Elgin Military Museum to let it known that Bayham was definitely interested in “Project Ojibwa.” To show it was a serious candidate, chamber member Barry Wade whipped up a 3D rendering of how the submarine/museum would fit on vacant property beside the Otter River on the east side of the harbour in Port Burwell.  

The museum folks were said to be impressed. We’ll get back to you, Bayham was told.  

Bayham council followed that up with a unanimous vote in favour of pursuing the project — the one-item special meeting was over in 11 minutes — using a municipally owned section of the former coal storage flats to anchor the Ojibwa and related museum building, which is to include a sub-themed restaurant and a gift shop.  

Later, at the public meeting in Port Stanley, residents were told that placing the sub on the east berm just wasn’t feasible, since the municipality had yet to receive the environmental all-clear from Transport Canada under terms of the port divestiture agreement. Oh well. Too bad the Elgin Military Museum’s invitation to host the submarine didn’t happen two years later, the public was told.  

The news angered residents, many of whom believed that Central Elgin wasn’t doing everything it could to get the submarine to Port Stanley. Two days later, Mayor Tom Marks issued a public letter to clear the air.  

Marks opened his letter by insisting that “all members of the municipal council are among those who would like to see the submarine in Port Stanley.”  But where the sub would be located is in dispute, he said. On the Elgin Military Museum’s preferred site, the east berm, he said Transport Canada’s report on the environmental health of that land would not be issued until 2012 at the earliest, too late to meet the grant deadline. Two other locations were rejected by the museum as inadequate, he said.  

'We're happy to be known as that submarine place'

Marks then went on to say that even if the preferred location were available today, “council stands firm that it would not allow the submarine to be on the berm.”  

“Placing something as huge as the submarine – a football field in length and five storeys high – would dominate the berm and proclaim to the world that coming to Port Stanley is a visit to the submarine community,” the mayor continued. “While Council appreciates that a submarine might be a nice added attraction on the west pier, it can’t be the centrepiece for Port Stanley without unravelling the direction we are headed.  

“Rather than being known for upscale restaurants, shops, beaches and a place where tourism boat traffic is welcome, we would be the village of the submarine. We do not believe the majority of citizens want that as Port Stanley’s vision.”  

Three days later, the Elgin Military Museum announced that the HMCS Ojibwa would be located in Port Burwell.  

“We’re happy to be known as the submarine place,” says Acre, Bayham’s mayor, adding that the Ojibwa will fit nicely with Port Burwell’s existing attractions, which include a restored 1840 wooden lighthouse and a marine museum across the street featuring “one of the finest collections of lighthouse lenses on the Great Lakes.”  

According to the Elgin Military Museum, which needs to raise more than $1 million to set up the submarine as a public exhibit and build the adjacent museum/restaurant/gift shop, the attraction is expected to bring up to 100,000 visitors each year to Port Burwell, which could be marketed to Americans as part of a Great Lakes submarine tour. The USS Croaker at Buffalo and the USS Cod at Cleveland, both Second World War fighting craft, are popular in-water museums.  

“Port Burwell is a tremendous location,” Ian Raven, executive director of the Elgin Military Museum, told “There will be a tremendous benefit for them and for us.”  

He said the St. Thomas-based group’s visitor projections are based on “taking a blueprint from Rimouski,” where the Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Pere opened a sub museum in 2008 after acquiring one of the four decommissioned vessels Maritime Command planned to sell for scrap metal. An impressive 91,000 visitors came to see the museum in the first year of operation, despite a somewhat remote location.  

With Port Burwell located on Lake Erie a short visit away for millions of residents in both Canada and the United States, Raven says there is no reason to believe the Ojibwa sub museum will not only match that number, but surpass it.  

Can tiny Port Burwell handle so many tourists?  

According to Acre, “we’ve gotten pretty good at getting people in and out of Port Burwell,” with barely a traffic blip when about 5,000 people descend on the village for the annual Coal Flats Blues Festival. But while there are four roads out, “we want them to stick around.” The sub will help do that.  

Sub the 'cornerstone' of tourism strategy

Tourism is important to Port Burwell, whose early economic engines included shipbuilding, fishing and shipping. Today, the village is known for its beautiful sandy beaches, provincial park, historic lighthouse and lakeshore wind farm.  

Kyle Kruger, Bayham’s administrator, says the submarine museum will be the “cornerstone” for the economic well-being of Bayham, and indeed all of Elgin County. The sub, he says, will strengthen the area’s existing tourist attractions, while “acting as an impetus for other developments.”  

Already, Acre says someone is looking at setting up a dinner theatre in Port Burwell, a naturalist group wants to beautify the beach area with a pond and sand dune, where a stormwater basin now creates a muddy mess when it rains, and real estate such as restaurants that had been sitting on the market for a while are now selling.

“There’s been a whole ripple effect since the announcement was made,” the mayor says. “They’re excited about the sub coming and saying, let’s get things going.”  

Raven says the Elgin Military Museum hopes to have the sub museum open by spring 2012. With so much to accomplish before that happens, he admits “it’s a pretty tight timeframe.”  

First, there’s the no small matter of getting the sub from Halifax to Port Burwell and safely onto its cradle on dry land. Raven was in Nova Scotia the week of Oct. 18 to meet with engineers to figure out the best way to move the Ojibwa — it will either be towed or placed on a barge. Also yet to be decided is when the sub will be moved — this fall, when there is a chance ice on the St. Lawrence Seaway will cut short the trip and force an expensive layover, or in 2011, before the grant expires on March 31?  

Second, there’s the matter of funding. The $1.9-million community grant is only enough to acquire the submarine and move it to Port Burwell. Raven says between $1.5 million and $2 million is needed to transform the sub into an active exhibit and to build the adjacent museum.  

According to the Elgin Military Museum’s website, in addition to public tours of the HMCS Ojibwa, “groups and visitors will be able to ‘experience’ the submariner’s life during overnight and weekend stays in the crew and officers’ quarters.” A support building will house museum exhibit space, classroom and meeting facilities, a gift shop, restaurant and lounge, along with shower and locker room facilities for guests.  

“We’re just rolling out the donation part now,” Raven says of the museum’s Project Ojibwa website, which includes a “Donate Now” button. There will also be an opportunity to sponsor a memorial brick for the museum.  

Until the project is completed and the doors officially opened, Acre says just having the submarine on view in Port Burwell will be a major boost. “Even sitting on its cradle, that means visitors who come to see it will be going to our restaurants and our shops and our beaches and our provincial parks.”  

Along with new tourism dollars, the sub museum will also generate short-term construction work, plus permanent employment in the restaurant and gift shop, not to mention the new jobs that will be created in the ripple effect.  

And while Acre and Kruger both admit that a Cold War-era submarine isn’t an exact match to Port Burwell’s marine past — something Port Stanley says should be an important consideration in choosing a tourism attraction — they both see it playing an important role in its future.  

“I’m just glad that Port Stanley didn’t want it,” says Acre.  

Stay tuned. will have an update when the HMCS Ojibwa finally begins making its way to Port Burwell. — October 2010

You can check out the project website for updates on the museum and on how you can support it. For hours of operation and to book tickets, visit the Project Ojibwa site