A jubiliant Mayor Robin Davidson shakes hands with developer Phil Ritchie
Massive development planned for Gallaher, Maplehurst and Welland Mills properties
Historic mansion to become an inn, stores for Welland Mills and a Book Depot for former Gallaher mill
By Doug Draper
The City of Thorold has clinched a deal with a consortium of private parties designed to dramatically change the face of Thorold's downtown area and generate millions of dollars of economic spin-offs for the municipality. More than three months in the making and scheduled to close this coming January, the deal paves the way for one of the most ambitious downtown redevelopment projects ever planned in the Niagara area, as it creates hundreds of new jobs, restores two of the city's most historic buildings (the Maplehurst mansion and Welland Mills) and transforms the former Gallaher paper mill into commercial property that will host North America's largest wholesale distributor and retailer of books.
Representatives for the city, including Mayor Robin Davidson and administrator Bob Casselman, and Keefer Developments Ltd., a Thorold-based firm heading up a consortium of five key business parties to date, unveiled details of the deal at a news conference Friday at the historic Maplehurst mansion overlooking the downtown area off St. David's Road.
According to Davidson and others, the deal marks the first major step in a massive, three-year revitalization project on 15 acres of downtown area land, including the Gallaher property, Maplehurst and the 155-year-old Welland of downtown area land, including the Gallaher property, Maplehurst and the 155-year-old Welland Mills, just east of Pine Street, across from the Pine Street Plaza. Keefer Developments are prepared to make a capital investment of about $6 million to demolish some of the older, steel structures on the Gallaher property, renovate the remaining building to host what will ultimately be a 300,000-square-foot Book Depot outlet, and restore and preserve Maplehurst and the Welland Mills as heritage buildings.
Phil Ritchie, a Thorold resident and president of Keefer Developments, told The Thorold News when the bulk of the redevelopment project is completed three years down the road, it will mean "an amazing change in the landscape" in the downtown area, reinvigorating it economically and making it a more attractive place for existing and future businesses and residents. Ritchie said the Maplehurst estate, now owned by the city, will be leased by his firm and, with the assistance of heritage experts, transformed into an inn with accommodations for wedding receptions and other special events. Arrangements will be made with the city to offer Thorold residents use of the accomodations at discount rates.
The interior of the building will be turned into retail space on the first floor and office or residential space on the upper floors. Ritchie said at the north end of the Gallaher mill, where steel-covered buildings and other metal structures now stand, those structures will be removed to make way for a 35,000-square-foot store that houses a food outlet or other larger retailer. Mike Saporito, owner of Mike's Auto Service, near the corner of St. David's Road and Front Street, is also a partner in the consortium, and will be working with Keefer Developments on property improvements as the project evolves.
The Book Depot outlet will not replace the Book Depot now open on Welland Avenue in St. Catharines, and will initially be established in the old Gallaher mill as a wholesale distributor for books, with an attached retail outlet to come later. It will be established by True Remainders Ltd., another key member of the consortium for the redevelopment project affiliated with The Book Depot.
"This is really exciting for Thorold," said Davidson, "and I think the public will be elated with it. It is going to change the face of Thorold in a very positive way, forever."
The economic spin-offs for the city "will be tremendous," added Casselman. In addition to the $6 million to $7 million in capital investments that will create work for builders as the project gets under way, the commercial outlets are expected to create more than 300 new jobs and roughly $7.5 million in "economic ripple effects" through the rest of the local community. Casselman said the project will also get the old Gallaher paper mill property back on the tax roll, generating more than $250,000 in revenue for the city annually. Since the century-old mill closed its gates more than two years ago when its last owner, Michael Gallaher, was forced to declare bankruptcy, the city has lost approximately $2 million in tax revenue. The administrator added the city will have to spend some (an unspecified amount) of tax dollars improving sidewalks, roads and other public property in the project area. But the money for that work has already been sitting in reserves, and the new tax revenue generated from the commercial business the project will attract should more than make up for any costs, he said. Davidson said the project constitutes a "true public-private partnership," with private parties paying the bulk of the capital costs and governments playing a supportive role. She said the city is working with other levels of government, including the Region, provincial and federal governments to obtain some Superbuild funding for the project and heritage funding for the restoration of the historic buildings.
Tony Tirabassi, a former city councillor and MP for the Niagara Center riding, is assisting in efforts to obtain heritage funding from the federal government, and has recently been in contact with Heritage Minister Sheila Copps about possible funding opportunities for restoring Maplehurst, Davidson said.
The city is also hoping to obtain about $1 million from a $39-million Superbuild kitty that came from the project and is being distributed by the Region for various projects across Niagara.
Davidson said she is also pleased the key private parties participating in the project are Niagara-based individuals and firms with a personal as well as business commitment to the area. Ritchie, for example, lives on Carleton Street, just a few blocks away from Front Street and the Gallaher mill.
Ritchie said the consortium is committed to working with the city and public on an ongoing basis as the project unfolds. He and other representatives have already agreed to meet with the city and public at least once every four months to discuss any concerns and consider any ideas someone may wish to put forward for improving the project.
"This project is not a cake walk. .... It is a complex project," said Ritchie, adding that overall success depends on all parties working together. "Our vision requires a synergistic investment," he explained, in the sense that redevelopment of all the properties, including Maplehurst, the Welland Mills and the Gallaher property, has to occur together to make the overall investment truly worthwhile.
"It won't be easy and the support of the public and government will be very important," he said. "But the way I look at it, this (downtown redevelopment) project has got to be done and if not now, when? And if not us, who?"
Taking Back the City
The height of Thorold's industrial and commercial influence in Niagara came about 100 years ago when the pulp and paper mills were thriving.
Since that time our contributions to the world of commerce have slowly been whittled away. Thorold today exists primarily as a bedroom community for businesses in surrounding communities.
The last 40 years have been particularly difficult as the business concerns that have remained have struggled through many changes, closures or downsizing. Our retail outlets have dwindled and the downtown core has been stagnant at best. Through it all we've maintained a strong sense of community and displayed a defiance to remain autonomous. However, with the heightening of that sense of independence some negatives crept into our public awareness as well. Change has been resisted, we have failed to anticipate and capitalize on the potential for tourism in this city. There is a strange underlying attitude that "someone else from somewhere else" can do things better. Because of that, forces outside of Thorold have controlled our livelihoods. This week, ambitious and exciting plans were unveiled that may provide a new foundation for the city core. And the plans, and the vision necessary to put them together, came not from Toronto, Montreal or Germany but from a Thorold resident. Phil Ritchie is spearheading the development featured in our front page story and after speaking to him it's impossible not to get excited.
His success so far has been his belief in Thorold and his ability to convey that tenet to investors and partners. He is under no delusion, in today's world that means a belief in financial success. But Ritchie also displays an understanding of the significance of history, culture and tourism that has moved this project beyond unique - it's truly extraordinary.
Revitilization of the downtown core, reclamation of an abandoned paper mill and the Welland Mills (now dormant for over 100 years), a Heritage Inn at Maplehurst, significant job creation - the plan could not possibly address more of the ills facing Thorold today. And while change has been met with skepticism in the past, our council and the Region have met this proposal with unbridled enthusiasm. We can't over state the importance of the support they have demonstrated in Ritchie and his partners in this endeavour. The project will need much more. It's now time for our citizens and businesses to recognize the crossroads at which Thorold now stands and to take ownership of our future.
It's time to believe that we can and will control our own economic destiny.
Last Modified: November 27, 2012