Maplehurst, Welland Mills next on the list
By Doug Draper
"It is pretty exciting, really," said Ritchie, whose Thorold-based firm is co-ordinating the rejuvenation project in partnership with city council and staff.
"I think this year is going to see as big a visual change as last year," he added of the efforts that have already been made to remove old smokestacks and other structures on the Gallaher property that defined its industrial past.
Ritchie said at least three efforts slated for this year "will change (the downtown landscape) dramatically." They include the ongoing upgrading of the exterior of the Gallaher mill where The Book Depot now makes its home; long-awaited improvements to the roof, windows and other external features of the 19th century Welland Mills building off Pine Street, and a makeover of Front Street North as it runs past the Book Depot and the city's arenas to St. David's Road where Maplehurst is located.
As for Maplehurst itself, which is owned by the City of Thorold and which Ritchie plans to transform into a heritage inn, he said his firm is "fully committed" to moving forward with the project.
In the weeks ahead, Ritchie is planning to hire a "restoration manager" to help restore features of the mansion, as much as possible, to what they were when the Keefer family originally built it in the late 1800s. He'll also be hosting the first meeting of 'The Friends of Maplehurst', a group of local citizens who have volunteered to help with the building's restoration.
Ritchie said about 25 local residents have volunteered to lend their time, energy and skills in areas ranging from plumbing to wood restoration and horticulture, to refurbishing the building and its grounds.
Keefer Developments is also reaching out for help from other volunteers with skills in building restoration and from those who may have old photographs of the interior and exterior of Maplehurst, or may have access to furniture or other artifacts from the mansion's earlier years.
As the restoration proceeds, Ritchie said his firm hopes to strike a deal before the end of the year with an experienced operator of quality inns.
"We are looking for an operator who believes in the future of the downtown here (as) a great location" for visitors interested in exploring the Niagara area, he said.
Ritchie said he also remains convinced the rejuvenation project, which has already seen the Book Depot well on the way to establishing one of North America's largest book warehouses in the Gallaher mill, is transforming the image Thorold long maintained as a factory town.
"I think Thorold will be a real turn-around story," he said of the work underway. "Any business would do well to look to the downtown area of Thorold. There is a growing, compelling case for locating your business here."
Thorold's downtown rejuvenation project, initiated a year-and-a-half ago, has already received praise from the province as an example of "smart growth" and has received a national award from the Canadian Urban Institute as a model for redeveloping industrial brownfields.
City council has committed a total of $771,000 to improving the streetscape around the property and is still hoping the provincial and federal governments come through with equal amounts of money in SuperBuild funds.
Ritchie and the city are obviously hoping senior levels of government see fit to fund a project they have already cited as a positive model for other municipalities to follow. In the meantime, said Ritchie, "We are going to soldier on."
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