2012-10-22 at 21:18
Nordmin Engineering Ltd. president Chris Dougherty guaranteed he won't take public space away at the former Sir John A. Macdonald school site.
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The owner of a local engineering firm is cautiously optimistic that council has not shot down his plan to turn the former Sir John A. Macdonald School into his company’s new headquarters.
Nordmin Engineering Ltd. president Chris Dougherty had asked city council to approve a zoning bylaw amendment that would allow the renovations to go forward, but city administration advised a traffic study was necessary to ensure Nordmin’s plan for a new Thunder Bay office did not negatively impact on the surrounding neighbourhood.
Council voted to refer the decision back to administration to craft a bylaw that ensures the company follows through on plans to maintain the heavily used green space on the north-end property for public use – among other conditions.
“We’re very encouraged by the decision this evening,” Dougherty said, adding he understands the need for a traffic study and that he doesn’t think it will pose too much of a delay for the project, which is all but shovel ready at this point.
“We’re going to have to do the traffic study ahead of time, which is something we’re going to have to look at very quickly. I’m not anticipating it to be a big issue. It sounds like there is a fairly extensive data set in place and so we’re going to be in contact with the firm tomorrow morning to ensure we move forward as quickly as we can.
At stake are 35 new jobs Dougherty said.
Nordmin, an international mining engineering firm 65 workers and projects on the go from Mongolia to South America to Northern Ontario, has outgrown its Alloy Drive facility.
But Mark Smith, the city’s manager of development services, said there are still a number of questions that need answering.
“The engineering division is not comfortable with the application from this standpoint,” said Smith, balking at Dougherty suggestion to allow the development to proceed ahead of the traffic study.
“There really is no way to do it in reverse order.”
Smith was also concerned the project would deplete the city’s available residential housing lot stock, while several councillors questioned if there wasn’t available commercial space available elsewhere in the city, including the municipally owned Whalen building.
Dougherty said the latter wasn’t a good fit for his staff, many of whom are women.
“One of the issues we ran into in both cores is there is a significant lack of adequate parking,” he said. “I’m not going to have them walking half a mile in the wintertime, in the dark, through some treacherous ground.”
Dougherty said it would cost about $14 million to build a new facility, and just $2.1 million to renovate the school, which his company purchased for $600,000.
Dougherty reassured council there are no plans to subdivide the property and sell it off, promising the public will still be able to use as they’ve continued to since the school was first opened in 1968.
“It will continue to be a sliding hill in the winter. It will continue to be a green space in the summer.”
The plan met with the enthusiastic support of several neighbours who backed it in deputations made to council Monday night. This marked a vast change from developer Robert Zanette’s plan to build high-density housing on the property, heavily denounced by opponents who said it would bring too much traffic to the quiet residential north-end neighbourhood. Council shot that plan down, which called for 48 indivdual and multi-use units, when it was presented to them in 2011.
Council did retreat to closed session briefly during the presentation, when a question of a possible challenge to the Ontario Municipal Board, presumably from Zanette, arose.
It’s clear the challenge won’t come from nearby residents.
Dorothy Colby, who lives next door to the former school, said she once unsuccessfully asked the provincial tax assessment office to downgrade the value of their home because she felt they lived next to a derelict building.
This plan gives her hope, she said, echoing the sentiments of several presenters who spoke in favour of the project on Monday night.
“We have felt as if we had won the lottery,” Colby said, recalling when she first heard about Nordmin’s plan.
“This building will be used as it was as a school during the day and it will be mainly vacant on evenings and weekends.”
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