The Past, Present And Future Of The Balacade

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Patricia and Paul Arney, previous owners of the Balacade. The Arneys sold the arcade to new owner Grant Caton in 2017
Patricia and Paul Arney, previous owners of the Balacade. The Arneys sold the arcade to current owner Grant Caton in 2017. Photo courtesy of Patricia Arney

The Balacade has been a staple in the community for decades, but after the historic floods of 2019 and the impacts of the pandemic, the building will be undergoing extensive repairs in preparation for a new business and possibly a rebirth of the arcade itself.

The flood waters in 2019
The flood waters in 2019. Photo courtesy of Grant Caton

Current owner Grant Caton bought the Balacade in 2017 and continued to run it as an arcade for three years, but after the historic flooding of 2019, the building sustained considerable damage. Caton was able to open the arcade for the 2019 season, but he knew the repairs would need to happen soon. When the pandemic shut the arcade down in 2020, Caton decided it was time to work on the building, which “needs to be essentially rebuilt” due to the flooding damage, he said.

The space at the Balacade is currently being rented out to the neighbouring business Jack and Stella for the season while Caton and his team work to get approvals from the township for the renovations. They plan to rebuild the commercial space, but its future remains a mystery.

“We don’t know what would go in there yet, but possibly a Balacade, more possibly a hybrid of something,” Caton said. “We haven’t really gotten that far because every good idea around the Balacade starts with a new building to be able to house that investment.”

Caton knows the importance of the Balacade to the community because he grew up playing games there alongside many other Bala natives. He’s hopeful that the new building could house a reinvigorated form of the Balacade alongside another business, but he doesn’t want to make any promises about the future of the space. 

Photo courtesy of Grant Caton

They’ve gotten rid of some of the old machines over the years, but they’ve saved the more iconic pieces and are slowly working to refurbish some of them, Caton said. Games like the Simpsons, Ms. Pac-Man and various pinball machines have received some TLC, while others that are harder to restore, like the gypsy grandma or the classic clown machine, have been saved in storage. Functional or not, Caton hopes to incorporate them into the new building.

“The first step starts with the building, so we’re putting a lot of effort into that,” he said. “But the idea of the Balacade isn’t lost on us and we’ll see what happens after we can hopefully get that approval and really get the town excited about what we want to put in there.”

The previous owners Paul and Patricia Arney, who ran the arcade for nearly 60 years, were hard shoes to fill, Caton said, but his team did their best and they loved getting the chance to see new and familiar faces. They look forward to opening their doors again someday soon, but in the meantime, they’re hoping to get the community’s support to reinvigorate the strip and help it become an updated destination for Bala.

“We know it’s an important piece of the community,” Caton said. “That’s part of the plan and the reinvestment to make sure that it’s holding on to its heritage and nostalgic value the best we can as we clean it up and make it into something that can be enjoyed for another 100 years.”

Paul Arney at the Balacade ticket desk. The Arneys and their staff counted all the tickets as they did not have a ticket counter and the tickets could be reused. They also kept a “ticket list” that ran from summer to summer so that customers could save up for special prizes. Some people just wanted to have a huge number of tickets, Patricia Arney said, while the bubble gum machine was a popular prize among other customers
Paul Arney at the Balacade ticket desk. The Arneys and their staff counted all the tickets as they did not have a ticket counter and the tickets could be reused. They also kept a “ticket list” that ran from summer to summer so that customers could save up for special prizes. Some people just wanted to have a huge number of tickets, Patricia Arney said, while the bubble gum machine was a popular prize among other customers. Photo courtesy of Patricia Arney

Paul Arney bought the property for the arcade in 1958 and filled it with pinball machines and other games he had purchased from various lodges and hotels in the area. He met his wife Patricia two years later at the nearby Dunn’s Pavilion. The arcade became a family property with their kids learning to swim in Lake Muskoka off the back deck of the property.

“We raised our two boys there,” Patricia said. “They worked in the arcade, of course. It was our summer cottage as well as the business, and so we ran it pretty much seven days a week from 10 in the morning till 10 at night.”

Robert Amos' painting of the Balacade
Robert Amos’ painting of the Balacade. Image courtesy of Patricia Arney

During the winter, they went back to Kirkland Lake until moving down to Bala fulltime in 1998. Paul and Patricia have many wonderful memories from running the arcade, ranging from the influx of customers they got from Tuesday night water ski shows to the time the Balacade was featured in a music video. They even met west coast artist Robert Amos, who shared a painting of the Balacade he had done while visiting his grandmother’s cottage.

The arcade became a community hub, and the couple got to know the local kids well, both as customers and employees. Over the years, the Arneys watched three generations grow up.

“We’d have grandpas coming in saying ‘My dad brought me here when I was your age’ to a six-year-old,” Patricia said. “We still get calls from people that we got attached to, but we miss the people connection.”

The Arneys are devastated to see the Balacade closed, but they understand the need for renovations as well as the impact the pandemic has had on businesses like arcades. They look forward to seeing the property’s doors open once again, and they wish Caton and his team nothing but luck.

“They did the best they could there,” Paul said. “With COVID coming on, it sure put a damper on everything for them, but we wish them the best.”

As this chapter closes on the Balacade, the Arneys have just one thing to say to all their past customers and supporters: “We miss you.”

To keep up to date with the renovations, follow Balacade on Instagram @BalacadeMuskoka. Flip through the gallery below to see photos from the Balacade and read memories submitted by our readers.

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