Finnish community in Thunder Bay struggles to save landmark restaurant – by Allan Maki (Globe and Mail – Marc 19, 2015)

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It has stood for 105 years as a measure of Thunder Bay’s history, a three-storey building with a restaurant that has fed generations of locals, many of them of Finnish descent. Others too, passing through or staying on the north shore of Lake Superior, have found comfort at the hallowed Hoito.

But now that building, once home to political activists, and its restaurant, the Hoito, are on the brink of financial ruin. With a debt load of more than $700,000, those working to keep the Hoito going are facing a hard fight. They understand what they’re up against and they know what could be lost.

“It’s filled with history,” said Kelly Saxberg, a member of the city’s Finlandia Association which oversees what was once the Finnish Labour Temple and is now a national historic site. “It’s a living museum.”

If you mention Thunder Bay to Canadians who live elsewhere, it won’t take long for them to mention the Hoito. The restaurant draws them all – workers, locals, tourists, even celebrities. Comedian Rick Mercer tried his hands at pancake making. Hockey legend Gordie Howe and his wife Colleen ate there. In 2009, Jordan Staal, then with the Pittsburgh Penguins, ate there and brought the Stanley Cup with him.

Unfortunately for the Finlandia Association, there are not enough pancakes being sold to keep the creditors away. The previous association directors took some calculated risks and lost. The biggest mistake was opening a more upscale eatery a floor above the Hoito. That restaurant bombed. Then, during the past winter, the Hoito’s pipes froze and began leaking water while heating and operating costs went up.

Ms. Saxberg is a filmmaker who was voted in last summer as treasurer of the Finlandia board. She explained that both the federal and provincial governments contributed financially. Unfortunately, a $2-million renovation budget was only enough to put on a new roof, install a new heating system and a new sprinkling system, and make the Hoito wheelchair accessible for its customers.

“We just don’t have many more places to go [for donations and sponsors],” Ms. Saxberg said. “We’re paying over $60,000 a year to service loans.… We’re making it, but just by the skin of our teeth.”

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