Lots of environmental concerns for former St. Marys Paper site

Last Friday I attended a wine tasting at the former St. Marys Paper site. It was quite the affair and I left with mixed emotions. It was clear that there is a ton of potential for the site, but I felt as if there was an elephant in the room, which was never addressed.

Riversedge Developments Inc. had a lovely catered soiree with food from Thymely Manner, and wines chosen by none other than Vinnie Greco. It may have been one of the first events I’ve been at in the Sault where the place was already filled only eight minutes after the stated start time.

As the wine flowed, people edged past each other in the standing-room-only area, between hors d’oeuvres tables and a presentation room. There were so many in attendance that they held two separate presentations.

In fact, my companion and I were turned back at the door for the first presentation. I thought it was something we’d said, but in actuality the room was already full.

That worked out fine for us, especially for me, as I now had much more elbow room to navigate clearly from the wine table to the tasty treats, socializing as we went. One thing we noted as we mingled: we were really bringing down the average age in the room.

Not being in that first presentation, I had time to guess why we were invited, or why the event was happening in the first place. You can’t cross the International Bridge without noticing the demolition underway at the site and speculation as to how it will all turn out is rampant.

All I knew from some quick research was that Riversedge, located in Woodstock, Ont., has focused on “metals trading and recovery since 2004.” Understandably with rising metal prices, the copper and stainless steel on the site alone must be worth a few million. The company’s business model is to “acquire, remediate and redevelop distressed industrial properties into renewable energy and materials recycling facilities.”

Then there have been articles in the paper lately about Riversedge working with the Innovation Centre, and seeking participation from businesses, Sault College, and Algoma University to build a bio-energy and technology campus on the most easterly part of the property.

Some of the lovely sandstone buildings are designated as heritage buildings, so it seems those are staying, but all of the newer construction will be torn down by Christmas.

(I hope someone put a time-delay camera somewhere to document all the changes on site, it would be a cool piece of video. )

Sufficiently warmed by the wine, Steve and I made it into the second presentation (though I use that term lightly.) There was a projector, and I expected to see all kinds of architectural drawings for future plans. Instead, there was one largish map board on an easel, which they pointed to a couple of times.

Only then did it start to become clearer … they wanted seniors to buy into living on the premises, and this was akin to a timeshare presentation.

I like that they were seeking input from people who might live there — an opportunity to build their own community — but they also spoke of a “campus” that would mix young and old, except there were next to no “young” in the room.

I also feel that this part of the presentation is far outside the usual mandate of the Riversedge company. I left feeling that as soon as they’d reclaimed and sold as many of the materials as possible, the city would somehow be left with a site not unlike Northern Breweries and the Gateway site: prime waterfront locations with opportunities for greatness, but the elephant of impossible environmental cleanups ahead of them.

On a lighter note, the developers put a lot of work into transforming the old machine shop into a venue for performances and events in the community. The industrial-chic space is striking with its almost 50-foot-high ceilings and old cranes still in view.

I bumped into Donna Hilsinger at the venue just before the Algoma Fall Festival performance was about to begin, and she looked radiant.

“We’re proud to be the first people to use this beautiful performance space,” said Hilsinger. “Different performances lend themselves to different spaces and this venue is an exciting addition to the Sault’s current landscape.”

Now what remains to be seen is if any of the seniors in attendance will agree with her, and want to help develop the site into their dream community.

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