A north Hamilton resident is decrying the lack of progress on the redevelopment of a shuttered north Hamilton industrial site.
Sylvia Nickerson, president of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association, says Forum Equity Partners, the company purchased the Cannon Knittings Mills in 2011, has not shown enough “vision” to attract anchor tenants.
The delay, she says, represents a “missed opportunity” for the Beasley, a low-income neighbourhood just northeast of downtown, and leaves the community with a large, dilapidated white elephant.
“I think Beasley deserves better than this and deserves the opportunity to provide a vision for what a building could be,” says Nickerson. “[The developers] need to put their money where their mouth is and I don't see that happening with this project.”
Purchased in 2011
Forum Equity Partners purchased the Cannon Knitting Mills in 2011 for about $200,000. About 50 per cent of that came in the form of a loan from the city's economic development office, which is a partner on the project.
The plans for the redevelopment, dubbed “The Mills Innovation Exchange," boasted illustrations of a cleaned-up brownfield site filled with cutting-edge tech startups and chic stores on the ground level.
But the developers, Nickerson says, need to do more than project a hip, modern image to get the project off the ground.
“I'm so tired of developers slapping the words 'creative' or 'innovative' on a building and expecting businesses to line up to move in,” says Nickerson, who lives near the site. “In a neighbourhood like Beasley, a building developer needs way more vision than that.”
Jeremy Freiburger, executive director of the non-profit creative consultancy firm Cobalt Connects, also expressed disappointment about the state of the project.
Forum Equity Partners, he says, tapped his company to help create a plan for what the Knitting Mills could become.
“We can't just say, 'We've got an empty box, move into this empty box.' We have to ask, 'What's this box about?' “ says Freiburger. “Our job was intended to be to help them go through that process.”
But the developers, he says, didn't keep in touch.
Forum Equity Partners declined to comment for this story. But Glen Norton, manager urban renewal and planning with the city's economic development office, says other factors — not a lack of effort on the part of the developer — are causing the holdup.
In March, he told CBC Hamilton that low-cost office space downtown makes the Knitting Mills project a tough sell.
“We're competing with a downtown office vacancy rate of 12.8 per cent right now,” he said. “The rent on this is not going to be as cheap as someone can get in an office tower right now. Once that high vacancy rate goes away, this looks more attractive.”
Another challenge is parking. Before the project can go ahead, Norton said, there needs to be spaces for 100 cars.
In an April email to CBC Hamilton, Norton wrote that the city “[continues] to assist the developer in attempts to attract and locate anchor tenants.”
However, he noted the city “cannot, nor would we, force this developer (nor any other) to develop a project on a schedule that did not make sense from an economic feasibility basis.”
In the meantime
Nickerson did laud the city for arranging for film crews to shoot on the site, and hopes community members will be allowed to use the space in other ways while it's awaiting redevelopment.
“On James Street, before James had become rejuvenated, a lot of buildings that were in disrepair or under construction hosted art events and parties to bring people into the space and use it for its cool, post-industrial [aesthetic].”
“Even from that, you're getting people into see the space," says Nickerson, suggesting that turning the Knitting Mills into a venue for downtown arts events could attract potential investors.
“You never know who those people are, what connections they have or what ideas they might have about that space. And you're letting people inside, building a kind of buzz and a new history.
“Something good could come of that.”