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Exploring new uses for Thunder Bay’s brownfield sites

Study underway to catalogue what industrial properties could be repurposed to attract investment

One of Canada’s largest commercial property valuators is doing an inventory of Thunder Bay’s historic industrial lands.

Cushman and Wakefield is conducting a land study for the City of Thunder Bay to catalogue brownfield properties to determine if those lands can be repurposed and redeveloped for new uses.

The waterfront is the area of focus, with its derelict grain elevators and weedy vacant sites, where sawmills and pulp and paper plants once stood.

Doug Murray, the retiring CEO of the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC), sees only open-ended potential for these prime spots.

“I think we have a tremendous opportunity to redevelop and repurpose those lands for things like condominiums, senior living, and active lifestyle residential projects.

“But first we have to understand what’s going on with them (environmentally) and how we can better position them so investors feel confident in seeing a return with those types of projects.”

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To push the initiative forward, Murray is handing the reins of the CEDC over to his successor, Eric Zakrewski, a professional engineer who ran his own environmental consulting firm.

When the study is finished next spring, city staff and council should have a defined picture on how many brownfield sites exist, the nature and scope of any contamination, and if these sites can be redeveloped or should stay industrial.

Brownfields are categorized as undeveloped or previously developed properties that may be contaminated. They can be former industrial or commercial properties that may be underutilized, derelict or vacant, such as abandoned service stations, former landfills, foundries, or paper mills.

The CEDC listed development of a brownfield redevelopment policy among its goals in its three-year strategic action plan.

It’s an initiative Zakrewski was quick to mention in an interview in early November. 

Zakrewski said he'd like to loosen regulatory red tape to better stimulate brownfield redevelopment.

“Thunder Bay has a tremendous inventory of historical, industrial lands that, I think, can be repurposed and repackaged for the investment community to help foster critical development that can really boost our economy.”

Some southern Ontario municipalities have seen success in offering financial incentives through community improvement programs as a means to attract private investment in converting old factory sites into more affluent residential developments.

“Look at the industrial areas in Hamilton, Welland and Niagara region.They’ve done pretty well with brownfield redevelopment policies,” said Murray.

Thunder Bay has already done an impressive job of revitalizing portions of its industrial waterfront since the 1970s.

In the city's north end, former commercial piers have seen improvements with a marina, waterfront restaurant, condominiums, and a new Delta Hotel as part of the Prince Arthur's Landing development.

More plans are in the works to place a new art gallery on a demolished, but contaminated, former grain elevator property.

One of the biggest properties up for grabs is the shuttered Thunder Bay Generating Station.

The CEDC and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) prepared and sent a brochure on the 53-hectare (131 acres) site to a number of interested parties.

A consultant has been hired to market the 600,000-square-foot building and its Seaway-draft commercial dock. The property is also permitted to draw and discharge water.

The sprawling complex on Mission Island has likely seen its last days as a power generator, but Murray wonders if its two massive boilers – capable of producing two million pounds of steam – could draw the attention of a manufacturer.

“It’s costly for OPG to demolish the building, but there could be another purpose.”