Sault Ste. Marie's $11.6-million downtown plaza won't officially open until the end of next week, but it already seems to be setting off a chain reaction of other development proposals.
As SooToday first reported on Oct. 5, the numbered holding company for Tony Porco's SIS Group is preparing to develop a 2.49-hectare chunk of the Gateway property.
Last week, city council agreed to sell the land for $200,000.
It's the former home of the Mill Market, which recently rebranded itself as Soo Market and moved to 73 Brock St., adjacent to the soon-to-open plaza.
Now, SooToday has learned the three Veldman brothers — John, Justus and Paul — are planning a local comeback, aiming to build a "significant" residential/commercial complex on the former Soo Falls/ Doran's/Northern Breweries site, currently a parking lot between the controversial plaza and Montana's BBQ & Bar.
The Veldmans initiated but did not retain control of a number of development projects in and around what's now known as the Canal District, including the Machine Shop and the popular Mill Market.
Ten days ago, the Veldman-controlled BMI Group posted a video on social media, congratulating the market on its move downtown, and adding these words: "Our environmental team is diligently preparing our adjacent site for upcoming residential and commercial development. We aim to connect the waterfront to downtown and bolster the housing inventory in Sault Ste. Marie."
SooToday has confirmed from sources close to the Veldmans that the "adjacent" site is the Brewery Block.
Over the summer, SooToday exclusively reported that there was interest in building a "really great, dynamic residential and commercial space" there.
"People are excited in our downtown. There's no question," Paul Scornaienchi, vice-chair of the Downtown Association, told the business group's July meeting.
Scornaienchi compared what's happening in the Sault to what he says happened in Thunder Bay after that city built a $22-million downtown plaza and reaped $114 million in nearby spinoff developments within four years.
"I've been speaking to a number of individuals," he said. "So far, what we have is big interest in the vacant lot at the Brewery Block.... an expansion of retail and hospitality on the main level and residential up above."
Scornaienchi said three nearby businesses have expressed interest in putting new façades on their buildings.
The Veldmans are known to be spending on consultants and boots on the ground for their renewed interest in Sault Ste. Marie.
One recent hire has been Jason Collins, who served here as a city councillor from 2003 to 2006 in what was then Ward 6 and now lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
"I’m very proud to be part of BMI Group and to be working alongside the brothers and everyone else involved," Collins says.
So far, nothing has been formally released about BMI's plans for the Brewery Block, but it's expected to be a mixed-use development of "significant" density including market-rent housing (possibly condominiums), light commercial, and perhaps some institutional elements.
The company wants to consult with the community and to add value to the city's recent investments in the downtown plaza and Soo Market.
BMI is also working on plans for the Veldman-owned pulp tower/board mill buildings on the old St. Marys Paper site, but the Brewery Block project is expected to happen first.
Two years ago, local developer Albert Giommi was talking about putting a 60-unit condominium building on the brewery property, but his design needed 70 feet of city property immediately east of Brewery Block, on the north parking lot of the Civic Centre property where city employees are allowed to park free.
A number of past Veldman initiatives in Sault Ste. Marie did not materialize, but the family now has dozens of companies pursuing development projects in places ranging from Red Rock to the Niagara Region.
Its involvement in a massive Niagara Ports multimodal hub, in particular, has attracted major investors who are said to have brought greater stability to BMI Group operations.
As for SIS Group's plans for the Gateway site, that area of the city is known to be contaminated from previous industrial uses and it's a veritable Bermuda Triangle where many development proposals have shipwrecked over the years.
The latest purchase agreement allows a 45-day due diligence and conditional period to complete environmental studies and testing.
If SIS isn't satisfied with the environmental findings, it will be allowed to terminate the deal within the 45 days.
SIS must start construction within three years but city council was told last week it's expected to begin building as soon as possible.
"I'm very excited," Ward 4 Coun. Marchy Bruni said at last week's city council meeting.
"I thank Mr. Porco for coming forward with a vision and hopefully within three years it will have been completed," Bruni said.
"We've been very interested in having this parcel of land developed for many decades," added Ward 1 Coun. Sandra Hollingsworth.
"So I just wanted to say to Mr. Porco and his team, thank you for coming in with a vision. Based on what he's done in the past, I think that this parcel is going to look very attractive," Hollingsworth said.