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Could tax incentives be solution for former GM property in St. Catharines?

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“I’d be so happy, I’d be jumping for joy,” St. Catharines resident Susan Rosebrugh said when recently asked what she’d do if the former General Motors property at 282-285 Ontario St. in St. Catharines was developed from what it is now – a 55-acre brownfield of partially demolished buildings on land desecrated from over a century as an industrial site.

With her fluorescent-coloured protest signs, Rosebrugh is a near-daily presence along Ontario Street. Horns blare from passing cars, reverberating off a large building with partially boarded windows straddling one side of the street, and a partially demolished building on the other. Many drivers flash a thumbs-up or wave as they drive by.

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Sold to Bayshore Groups by GM in 2014 with some demolition of the old manufacturing plant following, the new owners presented an ambitious $250-million mixed-use redevelopment plan that seems utopian now.

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Rosebrugh has lived down the road from the site for the past 10 years, she said and wants to see what she calls an “eyesore” cleaned up and developed. “This affects me all the time,” she said.

The property has long been a stalwart point of contention between residents like Rosebrugh, who want the city to take action to clean up the site from the potential presence of leftover toxic substances, and the city, which has said there’s next to nothing they can do.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope that could provide some much-needed momentum on the property.

On Nov. 2, a public meeting will be held by St. Catharines city council for a newly proposed Community Improvement Plan (2020CIP).

Inside of the plan are two tax relief incentives aimed at getting brownfield lands remediated and on their way to a new life.

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The incentives aren’t new. Through the previous community improvement plan, Bayshore was approved for a tax relief incentive in 2016. Approval for the Bayshore project was later rescinded by council in 2019 for inactivity. That same year, city council also put a pause on the plan, pending a review to see if it reflected the priorities of the city. Bayshore Groups did not respond to an email from Niagara This Week with itemized questions for this story.

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Margaret Josipovic is the city’s project expeditor, and played a significant role, along with senior city planner, Bruce Bellows, in drafting the new plan.

Josipovic said the plan is vital for old, contaminated industrial sites where remediating the land is one of the highest costs for a developer.

“Without any type of incentive or development charge rebate or anything like that, where you’re getting a little bit of help, there’s very little to encourage someone to redevelop these sites,” she said.

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The 2020CIP focuses on affordable housing, mixed redevelopment, heritage property and brownfields. For brownfields, eligibility criteria is more particular.

“We’ve tightened it up to ensure we’re focusing on kind of the true remediation projects that need assistance,” Josipovic said.

Developers can also be eligible for further incentives if they factor in other components, like affordable housing.

Josipovic said the best fit for the former GM property would be the Brownfield Tax Increment Finance Program (BTIF), which pays out the difference between pre- and post-development taxes for 10 years. “For a site of that size and magnitude, that could prove to be significant,” she said.

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Back along Ontario Street, Rosebrugh finds little cause for optimism in the derelict remains. But she said she fully supports anything like the 2020CIP that could get the demolition ball swinging again.

Don Sawyer, an area resident who lives nearby and is a member of the Coalition for a Better St. Catharines, which lobbies for action on the property, said he feels a “personal responsibility” for his community and neighbourhood.

“I don’t feel comfortable just sitting on my front porch and pretending it’s not there,” he said of the property.

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“My personal feeling is that yes, the CIP could be an important part of the solution, but only if it’s used in a thoughtful way in conjunction with other funding to bring in additional finances,” Sawyer said.

But still lacking, he said, is a more immediate plan to get the site cleaned up.

“Any developer with any sense can see this is going to be a major issue and a major headache,” he said.

Karrie Porter is a city councillor in Ward 4, where the property sits.

Porter said she’s happy with “most of the program,” saying it’s an improvement – particularly in the area of affordable housing and eligibility parameters – over the previous plan.

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There are still changes she would like to see but called the plan both “necessary” and “crucial” to the development of the old GM lands. “This is definitely a very important piece.”

In a previous interview with Niagara This Week, Mayor Walter Sendzik was asked what he envisioned for the property. Though he didn’t directly answer the question, he said the 2020CIP was vital to its future.

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“That is what is within the city’s control right now – if we don’t get that right, that property will sit vacant for 10 years, guaranteed,” he said of the plan.

More recently, Sendzik said this coming Monday is the time for impacted residents to be heard, along with developers who have benefitted from past city improvement programs.

“This is one of those crossroad points in a council’s agenda where we will have a significant decision in front of us that will affect the long-term health of our community,” he said.