The land that hosted the St. Marys Paper mill for more than a century is virtually unrecognizable, as redevelopment of the property continues under the watchful eye of Blueforest Ventures.
Since the company, a subsidiary of Riversedge Developments, purchased the Sault Ste. Marie property after the mill went into receivership in 2012, crews have been busily tearing down buildings and hauling away scrap to make way for a signature development to add to the waterfront.
“The overall objective of the development is to create that sense of place on the waterfront in Sault Ste. Marie at the entrance to the city, and it’s starting to take some shape,” said Justus Veldman, a principal with Blueforest.
Demolition of buildings on the site is roughly 80 per cent complete. Most of the structures have been torn down, leaving only the five sandstone buildings Francis Clergue built as part of the original mill development in the early 1900s, which are noteworthy for their Richardsonian Romanesque style, characterized by round arches, semi-circular arches on windows and belt courses.
Ninety per cent of the scrap has been recycled, but there remains a large inventory of new spare parts, Veldman said. This has led to the creation of a new business, Outquip.com, which evaluates a plant’s assets and seeks buyers.
Six former mill employees have been hired by the company, which has worked all across the North and recently completed its first job in southern Ontario.
“Some (plants) are having a hard time in the North surviving so this is a way to bring some liquid cash back to the plants and it’s been a formula that’s worked,” Veldman said.
It’s too early to assign a dollar figure to the redevelopment project, Veldman said, but what is certain is that the historical buildings will remain intact and be integrated into the new design.
“The next phase is really on planning to see what can happen to the buildings,” he said. “Some of the concrete foundations could stay or may stay, or different options could happen. So right now we’re at a stage of figuring out what could be long-term viable on the site in the buildings.”
In November, Blueforest announced the Algoma Conservatory of Music would be moving into the general administration building by September of this year. The conservatory will be undertaking a fundraising campaign to help with costs associated with the project.
At the adjacent machine shop, 9,000 square feet has been set aside for event space; within the last year it’s hosted CBC presenter Jian Ghomeshi, Algoma Fall Festival concerts, a presentation by Chef Lynn Crawford, and the Naturallia business matchmaking event. The remaining 26,000 square feet is being marketed as industrial office space.
“It’s in the process now of being leased,” Veldman said. “We’re trying to find out which kind of tenants would like to use that space.”
The pulp tower is being earmarked for a tourist attraction, dubbed Destination North. Its proposed components include a northern discovery centre, an entomica (insect centre), an Anishinabek Cultural Centre, a Group of Seven educational component, and a new passenger terminal for the Agawa Canyon Train Tour, which would relocate from its present location at the nearby Station Mall.
The board mill building will play host to the Board Mill Market, a year-round farmers’ market featuring locally grown foods and handmade products with room for 60 vendors. In February, Blueforest announced that the market would take up temporary quarters in the municipal fish hatchery, a nearby building that’s remained vacant for five years.
Veldman said Blueforest has been working closely with the Batchewana First Nation on bringing fresh fish to the market.
“There seems to be a big demand for fresh fish,” he said, “so if we can continue to work well with Batchewana, that’s very exciting.”
A purpose has not yet been outlined for the final building, the yard locker, but Veldman said he could envision a coffee shop or chocolate factory going into the space, something that helps create that sense of place where people want to hang out.
These projects will only go forward if the business case proves viable. As developer, Blueforest itself won’t be taking on the project, only preparing the land for development. The search is on for private investors who want to be part of the project.
Blueforest continues working in partnership with the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre, which came on board early on in the project. It’s eager to bring in an education component with the goal of getting a bioenergy and smart energy park going on the site.
Any development that takes place on the St. Marys site will be part of the overall Canal District plan being proposed by the city. It would encompass the St. Marys site, the adjacent brownfield sites, the International Bridge plaza site (currently being redeveloped), and the downtown core.
There are 140 acres of land with redevelopment potential, Veldman said, and the goal is to transform the waterfront into an attractive space where people can flow seamlessly from one attraction to the next.
The public has been itching for signs of progress, but Veldman is sensitive to past disappointments and remains cautious about promising too much. Too many developers have come to the city with grandiose ideas, only to skip town, leaving disappointment and unfinished plans in their wakes.
Veldman vows he’ll wait until Blueforest has a viable model that works for the buildings, the site and the Canal District plan as a whole.
“It’s going to take time,” Veldman said. “It’s not going to be overnight, but I think when we do have something to announce it’s going to be real, somewhat fantastic and worth the wait.”