By Harut Sassounian
This week’s article is about a major controversy in the Armenian community of Toronto, Canada, which has been fortunately resolved for now.
On October 30, 2018, the AGBU Toronto Chapter issued a statement, announcing that it could no longer afford to pay its Center’s operational cost which “has become staggering,”
The AGBU Chapter further announced that it has received an offer from the Centennial College to buy the AGBU Center. Subsequently, it became known that the price for the AGBU Center was 8.5 million Canadian dollars. The Central Board — the headquarters of AGBU in New York City — had endorsed the decision to sell the property which was built in 1981.
The immediate impact of this potential sale was on the operations of the adjacent Holy Trinity Armenian Church whose members had used both the parking lot and the facilities of the AGBU Center. Furthermore, the Church had “the first right of refusal” to acquire the AGBU property which meant that if the Church chose to or could afford to purchase the AGBU Center, it had the priority to do so before its sale to the Centennial College, under the same terms.
On November 10, 2018, the AGBU Chapter issued a second statement expressing its regret that “a few have chosen to mischaracterize the recent announcement” regarding the potential sale of the AGBU Center to the Centennial College. The AGBU Chapter further stated that “while we understand that some did not like this decision, it is neither fair nor constructive to react with information intended to mislead the greater Toronto community, particularly those involved with the church.”
In response, the Diocese of Canada and the Holy Trinity Armenian Church issued a joint statement on November 19, 2018, describing the AGBU Chapter’s two statements as “futile attempts for self-justification. Moreover, they contained comments that were intended to mislead and divide our community. In either case, they failed. Clearly, these statements are void of genuine feelings for a healthy community and are a reflection of dictated undemocratic decisions with no transparency.”
Confused by the contentious press releases, the Toronto Armenian community tried to find out what exactly was going on behind closed doors. The absence of concrete information triggered plenty of rumors. The concern was that Toronto Armenians would lose one of its main centers. The rumor mill was fueled by AGBU’s previous decisions to close down Armenian schools, such as the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus, even though the Toronto AGBU Chapter had announced that after the sale of its Center, it would move to a new more centralized location for the community in Toronto.
The other unusual situation was the public feud between AGBU and the Diocese which normally enjoy the best of relations around the world. Furthermore, Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, the spiritual leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is also the Honorary Central Board member of the AGBU. The Catholicos could have easily mediated the conflict between the two institutions, if it had become necessary.
On November 11, 2018, the Holy Trinity Armenian Church convened a special membership meeting under the presidency of the Primate, Bishop Abgar Hovakimian. The congregation adopted a resolution committing to raise the necessary 8.5 million Canadian dollars by January 29, 2019, in less than three months, to purchase the AGBU Center. A Mandated Committee was formed to that effect. The Church announcement stated that “Bishop Hovakimyan, in support of fundraising, made an impressive gesture by donating his Panagia and Crosier as the first donation to the fundraising drive.”
To everyone’s surprise, the Holy Trinity Armenian Church issued an announcement on January 29, 2019, confirming that the Diocese has “exercised its right of first refusal to purchase the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) property.” This unexpected and miraculous development raised a new round of questions as to how the Church was able to raise the large sum of 8.5 million Canadian dollars to purchase the property in such a short time! Inquiries to the Church for some details went unanswered, fueling more rumors as to the true source of the funding for the purchase of the AGBU Center.
After several more emails and phone calls to the Church and its Mandated Committee, Ara Boyajian, a member of the Committee, was kind enough to respond. Initially, Boyajian wrote to me that “the AGBU property next to the HTA [Holy Trinity Armenian] Church in Toronto was purchased by the Diocese and registered in the name of the Diocese. In 90 days the Diocese secured the required financing, exercised its right of first refusal, and completed the 8.5 million [Canadian] dollar transaction on Feb 28, 2019.”
When asked for further details, Boyajian and the Mandated Committee disclosed to me the following information:
“1) The Diocese was able to secure the financing of the project, which of course means that it got a Loan, purchased the AGBU property, and registered it in the name of the Diocese.”
“2) The Loan is secured by a 5-year term mortgage using only the subject property as collateral. The financiers currently want to remain anonymous, and the Diocese is obliged to respect their wishes.”
“3) The Diocese’s own feasibility study and the cash flow projections ensure that over the next five years the Diocese will head lease the premises and be able to carry the property, including making the interest payments. This will include any loss of income due to granting AGBU the right to continue its operation and activities in the building free of charge for eleven months, at absolutely no cost to AGBU.”
“4) The principal amount of the Loan will be due in five years. This will provide enough time for the Diocese to strategize and plan to undertake a much needed project which will benefit the Toronto community at large.”
In a follow-up email, Boyajian explained that the term “head lease” in the above point 3 means: “a Tenant leases the entire leasable space from the Landlord and pays rent to the Landlord, or in this case to the Diocese as the owner of the building. Parallel to securing the financier(s), the Diocese was able to find, negotiate and sign a ‘head lease’ with a reputable Tenant prior to the purchase (during the 90 day Right of First Refusal period), to enable the Diocese for the next five years to cover all the expenses of the building, including the interest payments of the Loan. This was supported by a Feasibility Study and Cash Flow Projections.”
Boyajian’s answers clarify that the Holy Trinity Armenian Church will pay the interest only on the 8.5 million loan for five years, after which the entire loan amount will become due and has to be either paid or refinanced.
The most important point is that the Church leaders were able to perform a financial miracle in a very short time and save the AGBU Center — a major achievement for the Armenian community of Toronto!
Finally, it would be prudent for all Armenian organizations worldwide to become as transparent as possible in dealing with community properties and issues to avoid unnecessary rumors and the loss of trust!