How a $300 million proposal to improve the local energy grid got embroiled in an election stake over dilapidated properties
It took just five minutes for a Sept. 20 presentation seeking city council support for a massive Canal District energy project to go decisively off the grid.
The turning point was a photograph on the fourth slide of a presentation to City Council by Tom May of Bioveld Energy Ventures, one of three partners in the $300 million MillGen development project.
This slide did not show the large storage batteries that companies want to install at 95 Huron St.
Instead, it showed a historic structure nearby, the former St. Marys Paper pulp/paperboard mill.
May was trying to pitch the alternative energy proposal by explaining how it could create spinoff opportunities to finally revitalize the remaining sandstone Richardsonian Romanesque buildings on the site next to the Clergue power plant.
And so it was that May found himself on the wrong side of Matthew Shoemaker, a Ward 3 councilor and current favorite in the Sault mayoral race.
The reference to a possible restoration of the castle-like sandstone buildings built at the turn of the 20th century by Francis H. Clergue didn’t sell Shoemaker on a city seal of approval.
Neglected buildings and their owners became issues in the October 24 municipal elections.
St. Marys Paper’s Pulp Tower/Paperboard Mill is such a structure, a thorn in the side of local building officials responsible for maintaining property standards.
It belongs to the BMI group, led by Justus, Paul and John Veldman.
To build the proposed battery storage facility, BMI Group partnered with another Veldman company, Bioveld Energy Ventures, with the entire venture financially backed by California-based SB Energy.
SB Energy describes itself as a company dedicated to fighting climate change and ending reliance on nuclear power and fossil fuels.
“BMI and its affiliates own the site and other sites we review in Ontario,” May said in Sault Ste. municipal councilors of the city of Marie.
“I would say that BMI has a very phased approach to redevelopment of these former industrial sites,” he added.
At the Sault, however, the Veldman family approach has not always worked.
It has been over a decade since the former paper mill property was purchased by Veldman-controlled Riversedge Developments, who carried out extensive industrial decommissioning work on the site and began to pursue a vision of alternative uses, including arts, entertainment, gastronomy, tourism, education and other commercial components.
But the Veldmans were unable to complete the job, which was picked up and advanced by Tony Porco and SIS Group.
Another local Veldman Riversedge venture, to redevelop the former Soo Falls/Northern Breweries site, also fell flat.
The old brewery was eventually demolished.
So far, nothing larger than a car park has materialized at this site, although Paul Veldman recently said SooToday that the architects have been selected and further news on this project can be expected in the coming weeks.
Invited by Shoemaker at the September 20 board meeting, Paul Veldman confirmed that his family still owned the pulp tower and paperboard mill properties.
“We are also the representatives of the land that is just behind the plank factory, going up to the bridge, under the bridge and across the bridge. Hope that answers your question,” did he declare.
A bee in Shoemaker’s hat
“Yeah, that’s right,” Shoemaker replied. “Although I was hoping that wasn’t the answer. Because it raises a number of concerns.”
The bee in Shoemaker’s hood was the dilapidated state of the remaining historic buildings on the site.
“That’s not what we’re discussing here today, but I think it goes hand in hand with the endorsement you’re looking for,” the mayoral candidate said.
“Personally, I’m not comfortable approving it – giving any council approval for any project – until the repair of these buildings is put in a better state. acceptable under our Property Standards Regulations.”
Top 10 most endangered places in Canada
Com. Shoemaker isn’t the only one worried about the state of repair at the pulp tower and the cardboard mill.
Four years ago, the National Trust for Canada named these buildings to its Top 10 most endangered places in Canada listing.
“While the other buildings in the complex (office, machine shop and yard locker) have been creatively transformed, the future of the large pulp tower and the cardboard mill buildings is uncertain without a vision clear or strategy to find the investments needed to prevent their deterioration,” said the Trust, an independent national charity dedicated to empowering communities to save and renew heritage places.
Multiple arson attacks in the Pulp Tower in 2017, water damage in basements and severe weather highlight the dangers to these irreplaceable structures, the trust said.
“The sturdy and striking buildings are key features of the former St. Mary’s Paper Mill Complex – a set of five sandstone industrial buildings designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style unparalleled in Canada.
“The waterfront complex, the heart of Sault Ste. Marie’s industrial past and a key civic employer, has the potential to be a new cultural and business hub.”
At last month’s city council meeting, Shoemaker’s concerns about site security soon prompted promises to do better.
“You’ll see more action in the weeks to come,” said Paul Veldman.
“There have been concerns, but we are moving fast – in the coming weeks you will see a lot more movement from us there, to make sure this has been addressed.”
“This power generation project is not planned to be in these buildings.”
“We intend to maintain the historic structures,” said Tom May.
“We believe this will actually be a catalyst for further development around these sensitive facilities.”
“The intention would be to ensure the stability of the [energy] network, bringing substantial investment to the region… while allowing the redevelopment of Romanesque buildings in other regions,” added May.
Cobbler: no cigar
These promises did not convince Shoemaker.
“I know there have been several fires in the dough tower,” he said.
Shoemaker pointed out that the dilapidated pulp tower and cardboard factory are immediately adjacent to what he described as “a fairly attractive tourist facility right next door: the old machine shop and the Conservatory of Algoma [of Music].”
“I hear what you’re saying,” Shoemaker told Veldman. “I can only trust what you say. But personally, my support will come after we see this progress happen, not before.”
Is this the last kick of this city council?
Other city council members wanted to know if providing early-stage approval of the MillGen project to Ontario’s independent power system operator would prevent council from playing an additional role in approval. of development.
“We’re certainly not looking for final permit approval or anything like that,” Tom May of Bioveld told them. “There is a much more detailed design and permitting process that the project would still have to go through. These are the very first steps.”
But advisers weren’t so sure and didn’t want to take Bioveld’s word for it.
May said he would have no objection to a letter of support that allowed city council to finally approve a site plan.
What the city council did
A motion to this effect has been prepared, with Ward 5 Coun. Matthew Scott and Lisa Vezeau-Allen of Ward 2 are on the courtesy list of movers and seconders.
But Scott and Vezeau-Allen asked that their names be removed from the motion.
“Do any councilors want to move this motion out of courtesy, mover and seconder?” asked Mayor Provenzano.
The remaining councilors sat quiet as pots of rabbit.
“It’s the first time in eight years that this has happened,” Provenzano said. “We don’t have a motion before us now… We don’t have anything to decide.”
The mayor suggested that the Veldmans and city staff consider the concerns expressed by councilors and return to a meeting of the new council in November.
Provenzano congratulates the developers
“I appreciate the developers’ interest in investing in our community,” Provenzano said.
“If there had been a mover and a linebacker for this motion, I would have supported the motion because in principle, I think it’s really important that we encourage community investment.”
“I see no risk in this as the council are in a position to not support the project until we have more details.”
“I understand the council’s concern in this regard. There is a very nice development alongside this, which the community is very supportive of.”
“I don’t think the board wants to do anything that could negatively impact this development.”
“The reality is that it would be great to see this site grow,” the mayor said.
“I was encouraged by the prospect that this development could potentially lead to an upgrade or redevelopment of the dough tower.”
“I think that would be essential for the future of our community and the future of this site.”
Provenzano, who is not seeking re-election, encouraged the new board to keep an open mind about MillGen’s proposal.
What happens next?
If MillGen’s bid wins city support in November, bids to the independent power system operator must be submitted in December.
Projects are expected to be awarded in January or February.
“We would start construction in 2023, with the goal of being online by May 2025,” says Tom May.
“We plan to do community engagement sessions throughout the fourth quarter to get feedback on the project, as well as feedback from the city and Sault Ste. Marie PUC, if they are interested in the project. project,” May said.
In a separate matter, a request to designate the garden locker at 99 Huron Street under the Ontario Heritage Act was removed from the city council agenda.
The owner of the building had requested the designation but had asked the evening of the city council that the request be withdrawn.
Malcolm White, the city’s chief administrative officer, said city staff will hold further discussions with the landlord.
“These designations are generally owner-driven, so we respect the wishes of the owner,” White said.