Elgin Mall has wonderful potential according to the small, family-owned real estate investment company that acquired the 263,000-square-foot property in October of 2016.
At the time the mall was operating at a roughly 50 per cent vacancy rate.
Jay Burstein, spokesman for the new owners stated, “Our goal is to try and lease the vacant space as quickly as possible and try to make this mall the vibrant place it once was.”
A rather major concern was the large vacant space at the west end of the mall, formerly occupied by Zellers.
“We recognize the fact the former Zellers space is something we really have to look at,” admitted Burstein. “If we could find one tenant for that space, that would be awesome.”
Just shy of five years later and what is now known as Elgin Centre is again making headlines.
Preparatory work has begun at the very same spot in the shopping centre to make way for a $16 million, 95-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites scheduled to officially open next October.
That would be exactly six years after the new owners pointed out “the wonderful potential” waiting to be cultivated on the Wellington Street property.
The hotel will feature 25 suites, a swimming pool, hot tub, fitness facility and business centre, and provide a boost not only for the shopping centre but for St. Thomas and the surrounding area.
In an interview this week, Burstein advised work will begin outside the mall with the demolition of a portion of the west end of Elgin Centre.
The story actually dates back to September of 2019 when city council unanimously approved recommendations from the planning department concerning amendments to the city’s official plan to support hotel and apartment use at Elgin Centre.
The latter would see a mix of apartments and office/retail in a proposed new building fronting Wellington Street.
Proceeding with the Holiday Inn flies in the face of a 2015 retail marketing study presented to city council by Justine Giancola of Dillon Consulting and Scott Morgan of W. Scott Morgan & Associates.
Morgan cautioned, “The hotel picture is discouraging,” due to the proximity of London. “I don’t hold out much hope.”
Morgan obviously wasn’t privy to the long-term vision of Jay Burstein and his brother Mory.
In our conversation this week with Jay Burstein, he pointed out “This was supposed to have started last fall.”
Financial uncertainty due to the coronavirus temporarily put construction on hold.
Hotels generally did not fare well at the height of the pandemic.
The excitement level is clearly evident now, however.
“The synergies between hotels and shopping malls are there,” stressed Burstein. “And we want to see it happen as quickly as possible.”
Burstein continues, “We approached a few hotel brands and we felt the best would be Holiday Inn Express. They are really good to work with and they were all for it. That’s the brand we ultimately wanted to go with.”
In addition to visitors to St. Thomas and corporate business, Burstein points to the hockey, baseball and soccer tournaments the city plays host to.
“We’re excited we’ll have the amenities in the mall to serve them, including the movie theatre.”
There still is a bit of vacant space in the mall, but Burstein stresses “we’re working on that with a national-type tenant.
“We would like to see more restaurants and a bank.”
” . . . try to make this mall the vibrant place it once was . . . a shopping centre St. Thomas and Elgin county residents can be proud of, call their own and be able to shop in their own city and support the community.”
But, Burstein hasn’t run out of vision just yet.
“We have plans to install a nine-hole mini-putt inside the mall and that would be a nice complement to the hotel as well.”
The plan is to locate it at the west entrance to the mall.
As for the apartment component at the mall, Burstein advises “We’ve been focussing on getting the hotel going but now that it is going, we are definitely looking at doing that.
They will be apartments or condos and probably have retail in those buildings as well.”
Just one more step in what Burstein stressed five years ago as his vision to “try to make this mall the vibrant place it once was . . . a shopping centre St. Thomas and Elgin county residents can be proud of, call their own and be able to shop in their own city and support the community.”
ANTICIPATING SOME INTERESTING THINGS HAPPENING
Two weeks ago in a conversation with Doug Tarry on his proposed purchase of eight acres of land west of the Elgin County Railway Museum for residential development, he mentioned the need to work with the city on site planning and road access to the property.
So, just exactly will that entail?
“. . . there will have to be some regard for those policies as they relate to that heritage area and the city as a whole.”
We sought clarification this week from city manager Wendell Graves.
“I think we’re going to be meeting with the Tarry Group in the next few weeks, administratively, just to start talking about the technicalities of the site, services that are sitting on the boundary of the property and maybe get a further definition of their concept plans.”
Graves referred to it as “a significant piece of property and a very prime location that is worthy of some good attention and expertise to become a very fruitful piece of land.”
The land in question is included in the St. Thomas Downtown Heritage Conservation District (a link to the document can be found here) and Graves noted “there will have to be some regard for those policies as they relate to that heritage area and the city as a whole.
“I think we’ve all seen across the country really neat development proposals for brownfield lands that when creative people get together, and they’ve got the expertise, some really interesting things can happen.
“And, I’m sure that will be the case here.”
VACCINATION POLICY IMPLEMENTED AT STEGH
Earlier this month, reader Helen wrote to us seeking clarification on vaccination protocols at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital.
Her request proved timely, as the hospital this week released its vaccination strategy for staff and physicians.
To get further insight, we spoke with Tonya Sheldon, vice-president of Corporate Services at the hospital. She confirmed a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for staff and physicians is coming on Sept. 7.
The protocol is designed to maintain clinical care capacity in the hospital and allow for the re-introduction of services halted in the pandemic.
Sheldon explained all staff and physicians will need to be double vaccinated at least 14 days prior to Sept. 7. Those not vaccinated at that time will have to test negative prior to coming to work each day.
She noted, as of this week, 89.3 per cent of staff and physicians at the hospital have received two doses of vaccine.
She advised of the 10 per cent not vaccinated, “there is probably a small group that is completely hesitant against it.
“We’re working with that group and reaching out to each individual to find out what their actual status is on getting the vaccination or not.”
Sheldon stressed the daily testing is only an option for staff already employed at the hospital.
“All new staff and physicians, students, volunteers and contractors must be vaccinated to be on site. There is no access to the test.”
She pointed out the Delta variant now accounts for the majority of daily cases in the province and is significantly more transmissible. However, at this time, patients and visitors will not have to be vaccinated to enter the hospital.
“At this time,” explained Sheldon, “it is not included in this mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy . . . but we anticipate that we’re going to get further direction from the province.”
The mandate at the hospital stems from an Aug. 17 directive from the province requiring certain health care and community service organizations to implement and comply with a vaccination policy for their employees, staff, contractors, volunteers and students.
The directive at this time does not apply to schools, post-secondary institutions and licensed daycares.
However, the province has indicated vaccination policies will be implemented in other higher-risk settings such as post-secondary institutions, licensed retirement homes, women’s shelters, congregate group homes and day programs for adults with developmental disabilities, children’s treatment centres and other services for children with special needs, and licensed children’s residential settings.
NO VACCINATION POLICY AT CITY HALL . . . YET
With the above in mind, and with cities like Guelph adopting a COVID-19 vaccination policy, we checked in Friday (Aug. 27) with city manager Wendell Graves for a status update at city hall.
“Well, we don’t have one currently but we obviously are in tune and are monitoring what’s happening in other municipal jurisdictions.
“We are in contact with the Ontario Municipal Human Resources Association and we anticipate very shortly there are going to be some good guidelines in terms of best practices in that whole area that we will take a look at.”
As for visitors to city hall, Graves advised, “We still follow public health guidelines and policies and so masking is required coming into our buildings.”
But, at this time, no firm policy on vaccination for the staff or members of council.
“We see that emerging and we will certainly be looking to see what best practices come and I’m sure that’s going to come sooner rather than later, probably sometime in the fall.”
THE ECHO CHAMBER
Responding to last week’s item on the St. Thomas housing and homelessness plan, Liz Dye doesn’t mince her words with this plea.
“Nowadays rent is sometimes 80-90 percent of a person’s income. That is not FAIR market rent, that is freaking gouging. It needs to stop that’s it, that’s all.
Stop loving the bucks so much and love your community more.”
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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.