Former school reopens as self-storage business

Robert and Anissa Iacobelli of Sarnia Self Storage. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

As the doors open this week on a new era for the former St. Margaret elementary school, Sarnia developer Robert Iacobelli said he’s particularly proud that he and his brother repurposed a building rather than tear it down.

The brothers’ company, Nelmar Developments, bought the former school property about three years ago and has turned St. Margaret’s into a 150-unit, climate-controlled self-storage facility.

After lengthy negotiations with city hall and 18 months of construction, Monday was opening day.

Satisfying the neighbourhood, city staff and politicians wasn’t easy but it was worthwhile, Robert Iacobelli said.

“I always thought it would be a shame to tear the school down. The brick, the block and concrete…that’s a lot of stuff going to the landfill,” he said.

“We discussed what we could do with it rather than throw it away. With a little imagination and ingenuity, we’re really happy with the results.”

St. Margaret Catholic School on Devine Street closed in 2010. The Iacobelli brothers bought the 3.73 acres (1.5 hectares), which included the school building, playground and parking lot, and intended to convert it to housing.

More housing units in the largely residential neighbourhood met with opposition, so the Iacobelli’s proposed self-storage units.

“The market is there. Everyone’s a packrat today,” Robert said. “There are a lot of seniors downsizing that need storage. Students are moving all the time and need storage.”

“And then there’s boys and their toys,” smiled manager Anissa Iacobelli, Robert’s wife.

The school gym was converted into a single 35-foot by 70-foot unit that’s already leased to hold a number of recreational vehicles, she explained.

Neighbours immediately liked the self-storage idea because it’s clean, secure and generates minimal traffic, said Robert.

But city staff and council were harder to convince.  A conversion of the building to self-storage required rezoning and an amendment to the city’s official plan.

Planning staff recommended against the Iacobelli’s proposal and city council initially sided with staff. Mini storage units would erode the neighbourhood, they said.  But three months later, in May 2012, council voted again. This time the majority said development was preferred to an abandoned school building and the project was a go.

Repurposing a school for climate-controlled storage and outfitting it with iron gates, fencing and an elaborate security system cost more than $1 million. Working with an existing building creates obstacles, said Robert. “But overall it’s more financially efficient.”

The school’s heating system, for instance, was in great shape and the schools large windows were a perfect fit for garage-style doors.

Most of the 150 units are 10 X 10 feet and rent for $150 per month. Smaller 3 X 9 foot units are $63 per month. Each unit comes with five turtle totes and a dolly.

The Iacobelli brothers have also purchased the former St. Peter’s school property but have not drawn up a proposal for it yet.

To inquire about Sarnia Self Storage, call Anissa Iacobelli at 519-330-1715.

 JADY BABY’S NEEDS OUR HELP

A mompreneur from Sarnia is hoping hometown support will help her win a $10,000 business grant to fund her first large-scale manufacturing order.

Jade Barr (nee Dionne) started Jady Baby Boots in her basement five years ago. Demand for the hand-sewn booties has taken off. Barr won Mompreneur of the Year in 2013.

Every month, ADP Canada Co. gives away $10,000 to a deserving small business. Finalists are chosen by how many votes they garner. Jady Baby is getting a lot of votes but hasn’t enticed the judges yet, says Barr.

She is in discussions with a potential factory but needs the startup funds.

“All ADP needs is an email address to prove you’re a real person, then you’ll be able to vote daily,” she says. “Competition is getting tougher, so we need all the support we can get.

“I’m so grateful for all the support I’ve had from Sarnia so far and hoping January will bring us good news with a factory and funding.”

Visit http://www.adpgrant.ca/contest-preview/?entryid=380 to see what Jady Baby is up to and vote.

 Got an interesting business story? Contact Cathy Dobson at cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca or 226-932-0985.