“We’re just turning the corner and making it a people place.”
Of course Serge Lavoie, president of On Track St. Thomas, is referring to the Michigan Central Railroad bridge spanning Kettle Creek which is being transformed into the St. Thomas Elevated Park.
In a conversation with Lavoie this week, he had exciting news on the status of Canada’s first such park.
“The first section of the bridge is actually pretty safe right now so except on days when we might be doing heavy construction, we’re going to start opening it this spring,” advised Lavoie.
“We’ll have the gates open, likely by Easter weekend and it will remain open all the time and only close to the public on the odd day when we have a work crew there.
“We want people to go up there and enjoy it because the railing system is in place, it’s very safe. And now, people should go up and enjoy it and watch our progress.”
At this point, the grand opening will likely be Aug. 26, the date for the fourth annual picnic atop the iconic structure.
Work will gear up in the next couple of weeks with the first task at hand being the deck work on Phase 1.
“The first work day for getting the deck work in place is April 7,” noted Lavoie.” Over the course of April and May we’ll get the deck for the first section in place. It will be the first quarter of the bridge.
“Our plan calls for it to be done in quarters. This year we finish the first quarter with the decking and benches, with the benches being manufactured as we speak and to be delivered at the end of April. There are 15 of those and they’re all sponsored.”
If you attended last year’s picnic, the park will look distinctively different on Aug. 26.
“We’ll have the whole first section done in time for the picnic. And Phase 2 where the sun shelter is going, the work will begin in September, right after the picnic.
“So we’re going to keep that flow going every year where we do the heavy-duty work in the fall and come the following spring we put in the decking and open it to the public.”
The sun shade referenced by Lavoie is a partnership with the Kinsmen Club of St. Thomas.
It was designed by Lavoie’s daughter Mira and will be crafted by local sculptor Scott McKay, no stranger to the park with a pair of sculptures already in place and his Perseverance installation the centrepiece of the Western Gateway Roundabout.
The Kinsman Sun Shade will be a colourful steel structure fabricated from a combination of Corten and powder-coated steel.
“We’re really thrilled the Kinsmen stepped up to the plate,” acknowledged Lavoie, “and we hope other service clubs will take a second look at this and realize this is something the community is supporting and they should get behind it as well. There is no end of need for money up there.”
“We wanted to be involved because it’s a really unique thing for St. Thomas,” added Kinsmen club president Matt Sharpe. “Serge pitched a few things the park had looked to get sponsored. We were interested in the pavilion and Serge worked with his daughter and Scott McKay and they came back with three rendering options in the fall.
“We went out to the bridge with Serge and talked as a club . . . the idea morphed a little from the three original concepts.
“It will be part of the park that will be around for . . . as long as that bridge is around.”
Sharpe suggested it may be the start of an ongoing partnership with the elevated park.
“We’ve started a relationship with Serge and the elevated park . . . and we’ve left the door open to do some sort of fundraiser at the park. It’s definitely a unique spot and it would be great to do something out there. Once the decking is down this spring it’s going to be a wonderful setup.”
Interest in the park in the sky is not limited to area residents, Lavoie points out.
“We have a lot of horticultural groups from across the province starting to book visits over the next few months.
“So I think the bridge is doing what we thought it would do. It’s raising interest across the province. It’s a piece of the puzzle for St. Thomas.”
An intricate piece that just a few years ago was scoffed by many people as pie in the sky.
“At the end of the day, who was going to spend millions of dollars tearing down the bridge,” reminded Lavoie. “CN wouldn’t have done it. CN is in the business of running trains today.
“They are not thinking about structures that are no longer in use that were built 100 years ago. That thing would have just sat there, slowly rotting away.”
And, what a difference the past year has made.”
“Last year we wanted to prove the concept made sense,” continued Lavoie. “This year we really are putting the pressure on because I think we have proven the case. The community is really supporting this thing and they’re willing to put some money into it and they want to see it happen. So we’re really going to ask people to step up to the plate.”
You can find out more about what lies ahead atop the MCR structure at the St. Thomas Home Show today and tomorrow (March 24 and 25) at the Timken Centre.
DEFERRED WATER BILL PAYMENTS ARE NO LAUGHING MATTER
A week ago, the Ontario Energy Board gave its blessing to the merger of St. Thomas Energy into Entegrus Powerlines of Chatham-Kent.
The utility marriage will be consummated April 1 and in the coming months the name St. Thomas Energy and its logo and colours will vanish, to be replaced by the Entegrus branding.
Few specifics are contained in the Entegrus media release and certainly no financial details are revealed.
So, you have to wonder if the $5 million owed the city by St. Thomas Energy/Ascent Group Inc., for deferred water bill payments, will also be the victim of a disappearing act.
The city’s finance director certainly had scant details of what will transpire after April 1.
At the March 19th council meeting, David Aristone presented a one-page outline of the city’s investments for the past year.
He indicated the $5 million dollar promissory note related to the water bill payment was converted to shares in Ascent Group in December of last year.
So, we now have more shares in a company in which the city is the sole shareholder. Do city ratepayers – the real shareholders – now have a 110 per cent share in Ascent Group? Perhaps a 115 per cent share in a company that will no longer exist in a week?
“As part of the merger, we had to convert those notes into shares in the parent company Ascent Group Inc.,” confirmed Aristone “That was done on Dec. 15 because we assumed we were going to be merged at Dec. 31.”
Well, what is the value of these AGI shares that city ratepayers now possess?
“I can’t tell you what that is,” confessed Aristone. “I know we got so many shares but I can’t tell you off the top of my head and I don’t know if we got that paperwork yet. That all has to be finalized, I think.”
Not much in the way of an assertive answer from the city’s director of finance.
“It would be based on book value not market value,” he added.
We already know the book value of AGI isn’t much because it only resulted in a 21 per cent share for the city in Entegrus Powerlines post merger.
In other words, we’re a bit player at the table.
Let’s move on. So what happens to those AGI shares after the merger?
“I think they get sold to Entegrus, I think,” postulated Aristone. “I’m not in charge of that process, that’s Rob Kent (acting CEO of St. Thomas Energy/AGI).”
You would believe those shares would be converted to Entegrus Powerlines shares, but let’s act on Aristone’s advice and talk to Rob Kent.
We did just that mid-week and zeroed in on what happens to the water bill payments owing the city.
“You’re going to have to talk to the city about that,” stressed Kent. “You know I’m not comfortable talking about how the city is restructuring their piece of this.”
Informing him the city’s director of finance had deferred all comments to Kent elicited gales of laughter from him and Jim Hogan, Entegrus president and CEO, who was in the same room during the call.
When the laughter had subsided, Kent continued “I’d rather not talk about it until I talk to David (Aristone) to make sure it’s accurate and concise. I’m not going to speak to this much further, then if David wants me to speak to it I will talk to them about how the mechanics will all work. But I won’t say anything else until I have that discussion with city staff.”
Hogan added, “It will all be cleared up well before April 1. This has nothing to do with Entegrus.”
No word back from either individual, as of week’s end.
Well, let’s go fishing over in the office of city manager Wendell Graves, who suggested the city’s share may be ever so slightly higher than 21 per cent.
“The merger was approved but they still have to lock down all the finances. We were supposed to be done at the end of the year and now we’re three months in, we don’t have the final numbers and I want to be precise about the numbers in terms of the percentage share the city has and all of that.”
As to that matter of the water bill debt, Graves said “We’ll do a fact sheet up on all of that and what those investments mean. It doesn’t take place until April 1 and I’m sure it will be a couple of weeks after that before we have that information but we’re happy to get that to you once we get it.”
Graves did confirm any dividend accruing from the Entegrus shares would be applied to the outstanding water bill.
Will that dividend be greater than the $153,967 the city earned last year on the interest payment from St. Thomas Energy/Ascent on the outstanding water bill payments?
Graves did confirm one of the reasons for the city’s paltry 21 per cent stake in Entegrus is the long-term debut, believed to be in excess of $20 million.
“It’s a combination of things. The assets, the business, the debts. There are a lot of variables that go into this but that is definitely one of the variables.”
You bet it’s a key factor.
The sad reality? Not one question from any member of council Monday as to the status of the debt owing the city and when it might possibly be paid down.
The mayor’s silence was especially noted.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Have you taken notice of those attractive new City of St. Thomas signs as you enter the municipality? They were first brought to our attention by reader John Baxter.
The boards sport the city’s new branding and now peg the population at 40,000.
The design and the sign’s message bode well for the city in the coming years.
But there is a cautionary note as well and Graves brought that to the attention of council at the March 19th reference committee meeting.
City staff are preparing reports to be presented by the end of April indicating, over the next 20 years, there is a need for approximately 200 acres of new, developed land to accommodate population growth.
That 200 acres would roughly be the equivalent of the Parrish Farm development along the city’s southern boundary which, when completed, will contain roughly 1,200 homes and a population of 2,500 to 3,000, according to Graves.
The proposed area of new growth is in the northwest quadrant of the city in the vicinity of Major Line, where rural lands would be re-designated as residential.
With improvements on the horizon for the Wonderland Road extension linking the city and London, along with access to Highway 401, watch for dramatic changes to the landscape in the northern periphery.
And did you know, last year the residential assessment in St. Thomas was $2.7 billion.
Not a bad recovery for a municipality often pegged as Ground Zero of the 2008 economic meltdown by that London newspaper.
THE READERS WRITE
In response to last Saturday’s lead story on MPP Jeff Yurek’s private members bill dealing with how funds in a Ministry of Natural Resources special purpose account are spent, Steve Marcinkiewicz posted the following remark.
“Thank you MPP Jeff Yurek for your hard work and attention to seeking out the truth. We appreciate your dedication. Hopefully they’re paying attention and won’t abuse the special purpose account in the future. Keep up the great work.”
A nice vote of confidence with the June trip to the polls rapidly approaching.
FOR THE CALENDAR
A note from city staff. William Street will be closed temporarily from Talbot Street to Centre Street on Tuesday, March 27 for the installation of a storm sewer.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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