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Derelict buildings get the Veldmans into Shoemaker's bad books

How a $300-million proposal to improve the local energy grid got dragged into an election issue about rundown properties

It took just five minutes for a Sept. 20 presentation seeking city council support for a huge Canal District energy project to slip decidedly off-grid.

The turning point was a photograph on the fourth slide of a presentation to city council by Tom May from Bioveld Energy Ventures, one of three partners in the proposed $300-million MillGen development.

That slide didn't show the big storage batteries the firms want to install at 95 Huron St.

Instead, it showed a nearby historic structure, the old St. Marys Paper pulp tower/board mill.

May was trying to pitch the alternative energy proposal by talking about how it might create spin-off opportunities to finally revitalize the remaining sandstone Richardsonian Romanesque buildings on the site next to the Clergue Generating Station.

And that's how May found himself on the wrong side of Matthew Shoemaker, a Ward 3 councillor and current frontrunner in the Sault's mayoralty race.

The reference to a possible restoration of the castle-like sandstone edifices built at the turn of the 20th century by Francis H. Clergue didn't sell Shoemaker on a city stamp of approval.

Neglected buildings and their owners have become issues in the Oct. 24 municipal election.

The St. Marys Paper pulp tower/board mill is such a structure, a longstanding thorn in the side of local building officials responsible for maintaining property standards.

The Veldmans

It's owned by the BMI Group, headed by Justus, Paul and John Veldman.

To build the proposed battery storage facility, BMI Group has joined forces with another Veldman firm, Bioveld Energy Ventures, with the whole enterprise backed financially by California-based SB Energy.

SB Energy describes itself as a company dedicated to combating climate change and ending reliance on nuclear power and fossil fuels.

"BMI and its affiliates own the site, and the other sites we're looking at in Ontario," May told Sault Ste. Marie city councillors.

"I would say BMI has a very progressive approach to redevelopment of these former industrial sites," he added.

In the Sault, however, the Veldman family's approach has not always proven successful.

It's been more than a decade since the former paper-mill property was bought by the Veldman-controlled Riversedge Developments, which did a lot of industrial decommissioning work on the site and started pursuing a vision of alternative uses including arts, entertainment, fine dining, tourism, educational and other business components.

But the Veldmans were unable to complete the job, which was taken over and further advanced by Tony Porco and SIS Group.

Northern Breweries

Another Veldman Riversedge local venture, aimed at redeveloping the former Soo Falls/Northern Breweries site, similarly fell flat.

The old brewery was finally demolished.

So far, nothing taller than a parking lot has materialized on that site, although Paul Veldman recently told SooToday that architects have been retained and further news on that project can be expected in weeks to come.

Prompted by Shoemaker at the Sept. 20 council meeting, Paul Veldman confirmed his family's continued ownership of the pulp tower/board mill properties.

"We also are the representatives of the land that's just tucked in behind the board mill, that goes up to the bridge, under the bridge and on the other side of the bridge. I hope that answers your question," he said.

A bee in Shoemaker's bonnet

"Yeah it does," Shoemaker replied. "Although I was kind of hoping that wasn't the answer. Because it raises a number of concerns."

The bee in Shoemaker's bonnet was the derelict condition of the remaining historic buildings on the site.

"It's not what we're discussing here today, but I think it goes hand-in-hand with the approval you're looking for," the mayoral contender said.

"I am personally not comfortable approving it – giving any council endorsement of any project – until the repair of these buildings is brought into a more acceptable state under our property standards bylaw."

Top 10 Endangered Places in Canada

Coun. Shoemaker isn't alone in his concern for the state of repair of pulp tower/board mill.

Four years ago, the National Trust for Canada named those buildings to its Top 10 Endangered Places in Canada list.

"While the other buildings in the complex (office, machine shop and yard locker) have been creatively transformed, the large pulp tower and board mill buildings’ future is in doubt without a clear vision or a strategy to find the investments needed to prevent their further deterioration," declared the trust, an independent national registered charity dedicated to empowering communities to save and renew heritage places.

Multiple arson incidents in the pulp tower in 2017, water damage in the basements, and weathering highlight the dangers to these irreplaceable structures, the trust said.

"The robust and striking ... buildings are key components of the former St. Mary’s Paper Mill complex – a collection of five industrial sandstone buildings designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style unrivalled in Canada."

"The waterfront complex, central to Sault Ste. Marie’s industrial past and a key civic employer, has the potential to be a new culture and enterprise hub."

Veldman promises

At last month's city council meeting, Shoemaker's concerns about the site's safety quickly elicited promises to do better.

"You'll see more action in coming weeks," Paul Veldman said.

"There's been concerns but we are expeditiously – in weeks to come you'll see a lot more movement from us there, to ensure that's been dealt with."

"This power generation project is not slated to be in these buildings."

"We intend to maintain the historic structures," said Tom May.

"We think it will actually be a catalyst for additional development around those sensitive facilities."

"The intent would be to provide stability to the [energy] grid, bring substantial investment to the area... while still allowing for redevelopment of the Romanesque buildings in other areas," May added.

Shoemaker: no cigar

Those promises failed to convince Shoemaker.

"I know there's been multiple fires at the pulp tower," he said.

Shoemaker pointed out that the rundown pulp tower/board mill is immediately adjacent to what he described as "quite an attractive tourist setup right next to it: the old machine shop and the Algoma Conservatory [of Music]."

"I hear what you're saying," Shoemaker told Veldman. "I can only trust what you're saying. But personally, my support will come after we see that progress happen, not before."

Is this city council's last kick at the can?

Other members of city council wanted to know whether providing an early stage endorsement of the MillGen project to Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator would prevent council from having any further role in approving the development.

"We're certainly not looking for final approval on permitting or anything like that," Bioveld's Tom May told them. "There's a much more detailed design and permitting process the project would still have to go through. It's very early stages."

But councillors weren't so sure about that and were unwilling to take Bioveld's word for it.

May said he'd have no objection to a letter of support that allowed city council final approval over a site plan.

What city council did

A motion to that effect was prepared, with Ward 5 Coun. Matthew Scott and Ward 2's Lisa Vezeau-Allen listed as courtesy movers and seconders.

But both Scott and Vezeau-Allen asked that their names be removed from the motion.

"Do any councillors want to move this motion as a courtesy, mover and seconder?" Mayor Provenzano asked.

The remaining councillors sat quiet as bunny poots.

"That is the first time in eight years that that has happened," Provenzano declared. "We don't have a motion in front of us now.... There's nothing for us to decide on."

The mayor suggested the Veldmans and city staff think about the concerns expressed by councillors, and return to a meeting of the new council in November.

Provenzano commends developers

"I appreciate the developers' interest in investing in our community," Provenzano said.

"If there were a mover and a seconder for this motion, I would have supported the motion because in principle I think it is really important that we encourage investment in the community."

"I don't see any risk in it because council is in a position to not support the project until we get some more detail."

"I understand council's concern in this respect. There's a really nice development next to this, which the community is very favourable to."

"I don't think council wants to do anything that could negatively impact that development."

"The reality is, it would be very nice to see that site developed," the mayor said.

"I was encouraged by the prospect that this development could potentially lead to an improvement or redevelopment of the pulp tower."

"I think that would be critical to the future of our community and the future of that site."

Provenzano, who is not seeking re-election, encouraged the new council to keep an open mind about the MillGen proposal.

What happens next?

If the MillGen submission gains city support in November, submissions to the Independent Electricity System Operator are due in December.

Projects are expected to be awarded in January or February.

"We would begin construction in 2023, targeting being online by May of 2025," says Tom May.

"We intend to do community engagement sessions throughout Q4 to get input on the project, as well input from the city and Sault Ste.Marie PUC, if they have interest in the project," May says.

Yard locker

In a separate matter, an application to designate the yard locker at 99 Huron St. under the Ontario Heritage Act was removed from the city council agenda.

The owner of the property had applied for the designation but asked on the evening of the city council meeting to have the request withdrawn.

Malcolm White, the city's chief administrative officer, said that city staff will hold further discussions with the owner.

"These designations are generally owner-driven, so we do respect the wishes of the owner," White said.

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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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