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Sault Ste. Marie: another visionary 100 years later

I bought my first denim grocery bag the other day in Sault Ste. Marie. Not only does it match my jeans and carry vegetables and my favourite Häagen-Dazs peanut butter ice cream, it has a pocket on the outside for car keys.
Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,

I bought my first denim grocery bag the other day in Sault Ste. Marie. Not only does it match my jeans and carry vegetables and my favourite Häagen-Dazs peanut butter ice cream, it has a pocket on the outside for car keys. It generally feels more sturdy and workmanlike than those cloth grocery bags we generally deploy to avoid filling landfills with plastic.

It wasn’t cheap. Forty bucks. I bought it at Étienne Brûlé Public School, which was closed not so long ago in downtown Sault.

The bag is a very small but important part of the vision of a young, mad-dog entrepreneur in Sault Ste. Marie who bought the old St. Marys Paper Corp. property on the waterfront. He is determined to turn the property into the crown jewel of the Sault’s waterfront. His metric is how many people per square foot he can attract to the property to live and work and enjoy some of the most interesting Richardson Romanesque sandstone buildings in the country.

He is taking a page from Richard Florida and his theory on the rise of the creative class in post-industrial societies. I’m not sure Richard was thinking of Sault Ste. Marie when he talked about the 12 per cent of occupations that include science, engineering, education, computer programing, research, arts, design and media workers, but he is following the blueprint. There is nothing more post-industrial in Northern Ontario than a shuttered paper plant.

The struggle to float the St. Marys Paper mill started in 1895. The flamboyant Francis H. Clergue came to town from the United States and took the Sault by storm. He was involved in helping establish a new canal and lock, Algoma Steel, part of the Algoma Central Railway, local iron mines to feed the steel company and, of course, the St. Marys Paper mill. It was short lived. By 1903 he was out of money, but his legacy and outsized ambition marked the city for life. In 2006 he was inducted into Sault Ste. Marie’s Walk of Fame.

The paper company made it through various near-death experiences in its last years, but finally sputtered to a close in 2011 after herculean efforts to save it on the part of many in the community and beyond.

That’s when Justus Veldman and his partners bought the skeleton. The way you pay for a 19th century behemoth is to sell the scrap. Guess wrong and you lose your shirt. Guess right and you can take a year off. What makes Justus, this 34-year-old refugee from Tillsonburg, Ont., and 2014 Northern Ontario Business award winner (entrepreneur of the year), different is that once the big bet is made he wants to give back. Well, not without making some money. He is carving out “a vibrant mixed-use urban village” that will lift the Sault to a new level of creativity and knowledge-based wealth creation.

Already ensconced in the old St. Marys historic administration building you will find the Algoma Conservatory of Music. As I walked into this fabulous building with tall ceilings and huge oak-framed windows there was a jazz combo to the left, classical to the right and a guitar solo upstairs.

Extraordinary acoustics. It was as if the building was built for the Conservatory and is easily the better of the Royal Conservatory of Music on Bloor Street in Toronto. Took a while to get them to buy.

Next up is the machinery building, which has been turned into a performance venue and already test-driven by the likes of Natalie McMaster and Gino Vannelli. I have no doubt Algoma University, IT companies, marketing companies, engineering firms, and design firms will fill the office space in this majestic building — attracted by having their own personal music hall and the feeling they are living in history.

Around the corner, in another abandoned building, a new farmers market is fully rented and, if bugs are your thing, there is a small insectarium, which is a test run for a coming larger interactive exhibit called Entomica.

Which brings us back to Étienne Brûlé Public School. Inside is an experiment with Ontario Works to help people learn new skills. Justus sees Northerners making products (from hats to mukluks ) in one of his buildings, with the new terminus of the Agawa Canyon Tour Train outside and tourists buying Northern Ontario products they see being made in front of them. For a full view of his imagination go to

People make a difference. There is life after death. The Sault is ready.