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Major downtown renovation begins around Bayside Mall

Published on

Cathy Dobson

Marian and Tom Bunton say a Vaughan-based developer’s $13-million plus plan for downtown Sarnia is a godsend to them and a bonanza for the city.

“I think the new owners of Bayside mall are going to blow Sarnia away,” said Tom Bunton. “I think anyone with investment is very excited. Sarnia should be rejoicing.”

Fifteen years ago the couple bought the 9,000-square-foot building at 146-148 Christina St. and opened The Trinity Lounge. Under their ownership the upper storey – formerly a department store and then a strip joint – became a hub for the city’s young indie music scene. They later added a popular restaurant called The Ravenous Gastropub on the ground floor.

“We’ve hung in but it hasn’t been a bed of roses,” said Tom Bunton. “This is a beautiful city with great potential but I can’t believe how sleepy it’s been.

“It’s like everything has suddenly jumped to attention and boosted property values.”

When news exploded last fall about the sale of the largely vacant Bayside Centre adjacent their building, the Buntons paid close attention.

One shortcoming of the Bayside Mall design was that it's largely invisible from the street.
One shortcoming of the Bayside Mall design was that it’s largely invisible from the street.

“We’ve been in this business for 33 years. Tom was talking about retiring but we hadn’t put the building on the market,” said Marian Seery-Bunton.

“He was talking to the mall manager and mentioned we wanted to get out next year.”

A week later, the Buntons were in negotiations with Gord Laschinger, principal with Bayside Mall (2015) Limited, the mall’s new owner, and an advisor with Wilsondale Assets Management.

Wilsondale has a successful record of redeveloping other under-performing malls in southwestern Ontario.

“People are saying our ship has come in. I don’t know about that, but it’s been a miracle they’ve come along,” Marian Seery-Bunton said.

The 82-year-old Trinity Lounge building will be demolished to make way for a new parkette and entranceway to Bayside, creating far more visibility from Christina Street.

“This is a good building, but they need to do what they need to do. There’s no real historical significance to what’s here,” Tom Bunton said.

Laschinger confirmed his company still hopes to purchase several more properties on the east side of Christina. However, he said redevelopment of Bayside and a seniors’ complex up to14 storeys high will move ahead based on the land already acquired.

They include:

–      Bayside Centre, which sold for $1.75 million, with another $1.3 million paid to the city in back taxes and another $900,000 committed for immediate upgrades;

–      The former Industry Theatre building;

–      The two-storey white building adjacent to the Industry Theatre on Vidal Street;

–      136 and 140 Christina St., the former Taylor’s Furniture store, now Costumes Canada, and CCI Studios;

–      The Coin Exchange at 220 Christina St.;

–      Sarnia Christian Fellowship church at 218 Christina St.;

–      The Drawbridge Inn on Christina; and

–      Ravenous Gastropub at 146 and 148 Christina.

Developers are pondering the future of the Drawbridge Inn, which might be upgraded to a four-star hotel or possibly converted to seniors'
Developers are pondering the future of the Drawbridge Inn, which might be upgraded to a four-star hotel or possibly converted to seniors’

Laschinger said $2.2 million has been spent on property acquisition outside of Bayside. In total, the developer has earmarked $13 million for the mall, mall improvements and nearby property purchases.

“Obviously, there will be money required for demolition and construction on top of that, but it’s very early stages and we have not costed it out entirely,” said Laschinger.

The Drawbridge Inn deal closes in March but an assessment has already begun to decide the future of the aging hotel.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time lately to ascertain what can be done with the Drawbridge,” said Mike Service, general manager of Bayside Centre.

The options include upgrading it to a four-star from two-star hotel and converting it into seniors’ housing.

Meanwhile, the mall’s occupancy rate has jumped suddenly with six new tenants already open or preparing to open, including an African import business and Red Rhino, Service said.

In addition, the charitable foundation Harmony for Youth is moving into Bayside this week in space donated by the new owners.

“It’s crucial to have a drug store and a grocery store here. We’re in negotiations with two very large chains right now,” Service said.

“I fully expect to have a drug store in next year and we’ve approached the LCBO trying to convince them to move to an exterior unit at the north end.”

Service said occupancy fell to 32% when the mall was in receivership. By the end of this year he anticipates 60% to 70% will be occupied.

Upgrades are underway at the food court, fountain area and large mall clock.

“We don’t believe Bayside will become a full-blown retail mall again,” Service said. “It will be a mixture of government services with a select specialty retail area.

“A grocery store is our main focus right now and we hope to have an announcement by the end of March.”

Most of the surrounding buildings that were purchased will be demolished to give Bayside more profile, he said. An exception is the former Taylor’s Furniture store at 136 and 140 Christina St.

The Trinity Lounge and Ravenous Gastropub on Christina Street, left, is to be levelled. The old Taylor's building, right, will retain ground-level commercial space and have additional stories added for residential housing.
The Trinity Lounge and Ravenous Gastropub on Christina Street, left, is to be levelled. The old Taylor’s building, right, will retain ground-level commercial space and have additional stories added for residential housing.

“We will retain that because a lot of cool things happened in that building of historic significance, like the shooting of (Red Ryan),” he said. “The plan is to keep commercial on the first two floors and build lofts on top.”

The “buzz” downtown is encouraging, Service added.

“We’ve got a lot of people coming to us asking if we want to buy their buildings. We’ve also received a lot of phone calls from people who want to get on a list for a residential unit.”

The Trinity Lounge is holding its final event on Friday, Jan. 15, featuring the Matadors, a “horrorbilly” band from St. Thomas. That same night Ravenous Gastropub will serve its last meal.

“We’ve got people booking three nights in a row for dinner,” Seery-Bunton said. “We want the community to know how much we’ve loved this business and how much we’ve appreciated the support.”

The former Industry Theatre and adjacent building will be coming down to make way for a refurbished Bayside Mall.
The former Industry Theatre and adjacent building will be coming down to make way for a refurbished Bayside Mall.

 

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