DePace Museum on the Move from Collingswood

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After five years of renovations, the DePace Sports Library and Museum of Champions celebrated its grand opening in February. Today it’s on the market.

By Matt Skoufalos

DePace Museum. Credit: Tricia Burrough.

DePace Museum under construction in 2014. Credit: Tricia Burrough.

It took cardiologist Nicholas DePace five years to get his Sports Library and Museum of Champions operational in downtown Collingswood.

After settling some $670,000 in municipal fines for fire code, zoning, and construction violations for pennies on the dollar last week, the doctor says he wants out of the borough, and has listed the museum for sale.

The museum, which displays DePace’s extensive personal collection of rare sports artifacts, art, and memorabilia, will continue to operate in Collingswood until the building is sold.

With a $1.8-million price tag, he conceded “there is no timeline” for any such sale, and he’s not sure what form its future will take.

DePace said he “owe[d]the continuation” of the museum to the memories of his patient and friend, boxing champion Joe Frazier; Philadelphia philanthropist Lewis Katz; and Comcast Spectacor CEO Ed Snider, lending credence to the thinking that he would relocate to Philadelphia.

“We could go the next town over; Philadelphia, Atlantic City, traveling,” DePace said. “We’re looking at options right now. Because the building changes, the infrastructure doesn’t change. The contents speak for themselves.”

DePace said he “still [doesn’t] understand” the reason for the “inordinate and egregious” fines, which approached $670,000, for violations identified by the Collingswood Fire Department and zoning and code enforcement offices. He settled them for around $10,000, albeit “under duress,” said his son, Nicholas DePace, Jr., who also works at the museum.

“Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money,” DePace, Jr. said. “The perception is that my dad has unlimited funds. He doesn’t.”

DePace, Jr. said the building was his father’s dream project, but that its extensive remediation took about five years to complete, during which time fines and penalties piled up. The museum took “a lot of time and effort” to create, and his father is emotionally attached to its contents, which comprise a 30-year collection of unique items.

“This is something that enhances your town culturally,” DePace, Jr. said.

Construction vehicles help excavate and re-pour the foundation at the entrance to the DePace Sports Museum on Haddon Avenue in Collingswood. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Construction vehicles help excavate and re-pour the foundation at the entrance to the DePace Sports Museum on Haddon Avenue in Collingswood. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘It’s not about the money, it’s about ignoring our process’

Collingswood Fire Chief Keith Davis said the daily accrual penalties his department invoked are very rarely used, but that a lack of communication with the museum and lapsed deadlines for repairs demanded significant manpower to resolve.

Davis said the department typically performs no more than two inspections a year at any given property in town; since 2013, the DePace Museum has been inspected 30 times. It’s the most the chief recalled since code violations at the Eldridge Gardens apartments became a persistent problem some 16 or 18 years ago.

Violations at the DePace Museum ranged from a cancelled alarm monitoring contract to open junction boxes and non-functioning emergency lights; one citation was for missing ceiling tiles, which Davis said can contribute to the spread of fire.

“Our intent is to make the place safe,” the chief said. “Fire code is written to protect the firemen. If there’s violations, it’s a danger to the firemen.”

Davis said the department granted extensions to the museum to correct its issues; failing to meet those deadlines incurred $549,000 in penalties, which were reduced to $4,500 in court.

“It’s not about the money,” Davis said. “It’s about ignoring our process. It never usually gets to that.”

The museum is currently in compliance with fire code, he said.

“Everything’s done,” Davis said. “It’s open, he’s running.”

Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said that DePace was cited by the borough construction and zoning offices for violations relating to the renovation of the property, a former TD Bank building that suffered a façade collapse in June 2012. Delays in those repairs and permitting issues led to fines, which Maley said DePace agreed in June 2015 to have corrected by September 2015.

For every day beyond September 1 that the violations remained unresolved, the agreement stipulated a $1,000 fine, which accrued for more than 100 days for a total of $120,000. Those fines were reduced to about $5,000 on appeal, Maley said.

“I’m sorry to hear that after [DePace] has completed all the work that he’s using this as an excuse [to leave],” the mayor said. “If after he gets it all done, and after his fines are reduced by over 95 percent, he feels he’s been mistreated, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Phanatic sculpture at the DePace Museum. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Phanatic sculpture at the DePace Museum. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘Selective enforcement’

Gene Taylor, who served as a contractor on the museum since late 2014, said initial repairs were delayed because DePace was waiting on insurance money.

He criticized the borough for “selective enforcement,” and said the zoning office was unreasonable in its treatment of the DePaces.

“I do a lot of work, and I do township work,” Taylor said. “Never in my life have I seen anybody belittled like the doctor was. They don’t have the right communication.

“Was the doc right every time? Absolutely not,” Taylor said. “But he did an awful lot for the town.”

Museum spokesperson Eric Katz said DePace’s chief motivation for moving is a concern that he could run afoul of further citations from the borough if he stays.

Katz said the museum generates about $27,000 in annual property taxes, and that the entity was incorporated privately, instead of as a nonprofit, in order to contribute to the borough coffers. To date, the museum has paid some $110,000 in taxes, he said.

Katz also said he’s trying to keep communication open among DePace and the borough throughout the process.

“I am trying to talk,” he said.

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