Fundraising push for historic St. Stephen basketball site

An artist’s rendering of the basketball museum Canada 1st is developing in St. Stephen. (Submitted)

ST. STEPHEN — The Canada 1st Basketball Experience, which aims to turn a historic basketball court into a tourist attraction, is beginning a new fundraising phase.

Richard Fulton, president of Canada 1st Basketball Inc., said they raised $1.2 million in the first phase.

“And that was primarily from Maritime and Maritime-rooted companies and individuals who believed in the project,” he said, “which allowed us to buy the buildings.”

This time, the target is $18 million.

“We need government support, we need private individuals, we need foundations — so we’re on that case and that’s very active right now,” he said. “It is going to take some time. My personal estimate would be somewhere between a year and 18 months.”

The basketball court, which local historians believe is oldest intact one in the the world, is in a historic building on King Street in St. Stephen.

“We currently own the building and the adjacent property that the court is in and are developing a basketball experience centre, which has different elements to it, one being the saving of the court and the story behind it in that building,” he said. “We have an understanding with Canada Basketball to bring a node of the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame here.”

Fulton said one node would be in Vancouver, another in Toronto and a third in St. Stephen.

“Each of them is going to be different,” he noted. “(Canada Basketball) has committed to that and told us that’s going to happen.”

According to the Canada 1st Basketball website, the centre will offer “hall-of-fame-quality information and physical engagement.” The plan is to host visiting exhibits, plus offer physical activity, education and entertainment, all to show showcase the country’s basketball history using digital technology and interactive hands-on basketball-themed activities.

“We have a desire to build an interactive basketball experience centre so that you get immersed in the facility and in the game, not just walking through and looking at it,” said Fulton.

Canada 1st Basketball hired CambridgeSeven, which Fulton called the leading North American historical architectural firm in designing “these kinds of sports facilities,” developed the concept design.

“That not only shows what the building can look like, externally and internally, but describes what can be in it,” he said. “It really solidifies the potential and we can now show people who want to see what it can be. Rather than just a vision, you can see it and that made a huge difference.”

The project will enable partnerships within the sports industry, as well as the Basketball Hall of Fame and to expand its reach into the Northeastern American market, Canada 1st Basketball also plans to partner with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

“It’s a huge tourism draw potential and the largest number of basketball fans is in the Eastern U.S., which is a six- to 10-hour drive from St. Stephen,” he said. “We want to use it as a springboard so that if someone comes here from New York or Boston, we want to springboard them into the rest of the province or the rest of Atlantic Canada. And why not?”

After learning the new sport of basketball from James Naismith in the United States, Fulton said a man named Lyman Archibald moved to St. Stephen in the 1890s to be executive director of the YMCA.

“He taught the game to local men,” he noted. “A game was played in October of 1893. That was not the first game ever played. Of the games played earlier, the courts have since disappeared, for a variety of reasons — demolished, fires, that sort of thing. That leaves our court as the oldest existing basketball court in the world.”

A fire in May 2010 that severely damaged the building containing the court, which at that time was home to a thrift shop.

“Most people in the community didn’t know it existed,” he said of the former YMCA gym. “The realization of the asset was brought to the surface and a whole lot of research to confirm what the asset truly was from an historical perspective.”

While basketball has always been popular locally, Fulton said interest has been increasing. At the recent New Brunswick Interscholastic Athletic Association Provincial Tournament at TD Station in Saint John, he said this was on display.

“I think the numbers were in excess of 6,000 people showed up for the high school basketball championship, so the popularity is there, we were there,” he said. “It just shows the value of it to the youth, to the economy, to the sport.”

At the end of April, Fulton said the Maritime Women’s Basketball Association (MWBA) is relaunching the league with a tournament in St. Stephen involving the league’s four New Brunswick teams vying for the World’s Oldest Basketball Court Cup.

“That’s a great thing for women’s basketball, and for the Town of St. Stephen and Charlotte County,” he said.

MWBA founder and commissioner Brad Janes said the work in St. Stephen impresses him.

“That’s quite a project that the group is putting together to make that a major tourist attraction,” he said. “They’ve had a number of fundraising events over the last few years. The artists’ rendition of it would make it an interactive facility. It’s just going to be a huge tourist attraction in the town. For us to get them involved, because there are certainly some real movers and shakers awith that group, we’re pleased that we’re able to combine it.”

The third annual Archie Celebrity Golf Tournament is set for August, said Fulton.

“(It’s) been very successful the last couple of years bringing basketball celebrities to the area to see the court, to get engaged in the project, and to help engage the area,” he said.

Fulton said Canada 1st Basketball wants to organize a three-on-three tournament, hold amateur coaching clinics, as well as host gala events.

Canada 1st Basketball has an idea for a youth engagement initiative, Fulton added.

“Basketball is a low-entry cost sport, you need sneaker, a hoop, and a basketball and you can shoot three-on-three in a parking lot to your heart’s content,” he added. “It’s a focal point to engage youth in basketball, in physical fitness, in history. And just imagine when we’re able to bring in a basketball celebrity to New Brunswick and have them talk about their life and what basketball has meant to them because many basketball players in the NBA were youth at risk and basketball was their path to success. They’ve established foundations of their own to support youth so imagine the impact they can have on youth around the country and we need to work with them on that.”

Jake Boudrot

A graduate of St. Francis Xavier University and a resident of Arichat, Jake Boudrot is an award-winning journalist with decades of experience as a freelancer, reporter and editor representing media outlets across the Maritimes.