Empty Spaces: What’s happening with Sarnia’s vacant buildings

The former Zellers building on London Road has been cut in half to create two separate commercial spaces. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson

It’s estimated our urban area has a commercial vacancy rate of 15%, well above the 5% to 7% considered healthy.

As we look around the community for signs of progress, The Journal brings you this update on some prominent empty spaces.

FORMER UBE/SARNIA WHEELS PLANT

The identity of the new owners is not yet public, but the large plant on Hwy 402 was purchased recently and the new ownership is actively looking for tenants.

Kenn Poore, a realtor from DTZ Barnicke and the listing agent, said the new owners are “two local men, both well respected, and I’m confident they will turn it into something good.

“This is good news for the community,” Poore added. “I believe they are working with new tenants.”

The manufacturing plant was built by the Japanese wheel manufacturer UBE Automotive in 2002 but closed seven years later, putting about 250 people out of work.

Sarnia Wheels, a company with out-of-town investors, purchased the building but wasn’t successful in landing wheel contracts, said Poore. In 2012, millions of dollars worth of wheel-manufacturing equipment was auctioned off and the plant, as well as its 72 acres, was put on the market for about $7 million.

Poore wouldn’t say what the selling price was but did say there were multiple offers.

“You will see a lot of coming and going out there right now because there’s a third party logistics company temporarily leasing part of it,” he said, which means a company is using it for warehousing so trucks are regularly transporting goods from the site.

“The new owners are currently doing repairs and I believe there are a few things on the go,” Poore said.

 

FORMER ZELLERS PLAZA

 

Since Zellers closed its doors at 1249 London Rd. in March 2013, the 73,000 square foot building has sat vacant.

It was left out of the ill-fated deal that saw Target lease 189 of Zellers’ 273 locations. At the time, owner Glenn Dawson said he was working on a multi-million-dollar redevelopment of the property instead that would see the old building demolished.

That didn’t happen and, two years later, construction work is under way to reconfigure the old Zellers building, dividing it in two. A new Giant Tiger store is scheduled to open Saturday, June 6.

The grand opening was originally planned for April but construction was delayed last fall. It’s moving ahead now and the new store (the second Giant Tiger in Sarnia) will occupy about 27,000 square feet at the east end of the building, next to Jack Doyle’s.

“Our new store will not occupy the entire former Zeller’s building,” says Alison Scarlett, Giant Tiger’s corporate spokesperson.

No tenants have been announced for the west side.

Hiring is ongoing for the new store, said Scarlett. She urged interested applicants to apply via www.gianttiger.com.

 

BAYSIDE MALL

Sarnia’s downtown mall isn’t technically vacant, but it is running at 42% occupancy with an uncertain future after going into receivership in late 2012.

“It’s a challenging asset,” says John Page, the court-appointed receiver attempting for a second time to sell the property.

The first time Bayside Mall was listed on behalf of the receiver, the deal was muddied by the fact the building was to be sold without the land.  The land is held by the city and, historically, the owners of the mall paid the city $1 a year to lease it.

That kind of deal kept potential purchasers away, said Page.

When the mall was relisted in November with commercial realtor CBRE Limited, substantial changes were made to entice a buyer.

First, the land and the building are being sold together, Page said. “The agreement is that the city will share the proceeds of the sale.” He wouldn’t say how much the city stands to gain, only that the city “has a substantial interest in the outcome. It’s not a nominal amount.”

Second, Lambton County has signed on to remain a tenant occupying about 25% of the mall for the next seven years. Page said that lease alone covers the mall’s operating costs.

And finally, a deal with the county has enabled repairs to the underground parking garage this winter.

The result has been considerable interest, according to Page.

“We’ve got people looking at it and there is momentum now,” he said. “I’m optimistic we’re going to sort something out shortly.

“Things are happening.”

 

THE BALMORAL TAVERN

 

The final beer was poured at Point Edward’s historic Balmoral Tavern on Michigan Avenue in May 2010.

Manager Darusia Kowalyshyn lamented the decision to shut down, saying the Bal was believed to be among the oldest licenced establishments in Canada.

It opened in 1865 as one of the premier hotels in the region and had been a favourite watering hole for more than 100 years.

But all good things must come to an end, said Kowalyshyn.  Her family had owned the tavern 45 years and she managed it for close to 30.

No smoking laws and a change in attitudes about drinking led to the business’s demise, she said.

For five years, the Bal has sat vacant, real estate signs decorating the windows.

It’s currently listed for $250,000. Word has it there’s an offer pending.

 

FIBREX INSULATION

Sarnians were stunned by the abrupt closure of the Scott Road insulation manufacturer in January 2011, which threw 140 people out of work.

Fibrex Insulation had been experiencing financial woes for some time and the declining state of the manufacturing sector in Southwestern Ontario proved a final blow.

Hopes were raised three months later when the Industrial Insulation Group (IIG) of Georgia took a close look at purchasing the bankrupt Fibrex.  But ultimately, IIG left Sarnia having purchased only the production equipment, which it transferred to an American plant.

All hopes of a new start up were dashed.

The 112,000-square-foot building, which sits on 13 acres with a rail siding, was originally listed for sale at more than a million dollars.  Its asking price has recently dropped to $895,000.

This fixer-upper can be yours for only $895,000. The Fibrex Insulation building on Scott Road has been empty four years. Glenn Ogilvie

This fixer-upper can be yours for only $895,000. The Fibrex Insulation building on Scott Road has been empty four years.
Glenn Ogilvie