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Work crews “unbuilding” former Sarnia General Hospital

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Cathy Dobson

Is it a labour of love or viable redevelopment deal?

Both really.

Mark Lumley and Kenn Poore, two of the five local businessmen who accepted $5.4 million from the city to demolish the old Sarnia General Hospital, talk about their project with unbridled enthusiasm.

“It’s a magical thing,” said Lumley, describing how Schouten Excavating is literally picking apart the abandoned building brick-by-brick and meticulously sorting the concrete and metal for recycling.

As much as 93% of the used building materials on the 7.5 acres property will be recycled, he said.

Owner Calvin Schouten has brought down the old nurses’ residence north of the hospital and is working on more auxiliary buildings this week. A towering incineration stack has also been dismantled.

“He’s picking away, not just smashing and crashing,” said Lumley. “His equipment is so quiet. He’s in there sorting everything piece by piece, cutting the concrete into 2-foot by 2-foot squares for recycling. It’s almost like they are unbuilding it.”

The former hospital site will be almost vacant when the job is done. The old George Street public health unit, later the records building, has been saved and workmen are installing a new roof.

It will be marketed for doctor offices or other medical uses, said Poore.

Demolition of the auxiliary buildings is on schedule but asbestos abatement in the main hospital building is moving slowly.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot more stuff in there than originally suspected,” said Lumley. It’s about 50% complete, and demolition of the west wing will begin this month.

Poore is fascinated by the property’s history and what it has meant to the community.

He initiated the idea of razing the vacant hospital with fellow developer Charlie Dally. Marty Raaymakers, Alex Jongsma and Lumley soon joined the group, known as GFive Inc.

“Revitalization has made a dramatic difference downtown,” said Poore, who spearheaded restoration of downtown’s Imperial Theatre. The deteriorating hospital building was blighting a largely residential area and the cost of demolition was a burden to the city.

“I said surely we can come up with a plan to take (it) off the city’s lap,” Poore said.

The original plan was to leave parts of the hospital intact but vandalism, age and weather took a toll, said Lumley.

Before work began, the GFive partners and their wives put on hazmat suits and toured the empty buildings, salvaging plaques, signs, corner stones and other artifacts for a display of Sarnia health-care history, possibly at Bluewater Health.

Photos they took reveal goodbye messages departing staff wrote on the walls.

During a recent presentation to the Golden K Kiwanis Club, Lumley and Poore spoke of doing something good for the community and preserving it history.

But, of course, at core it’s a business proposal ultimately meant to make money for the partners.

Estimates for the demolition have been around $8.9 million, and GFive members expect to exceed the city’s $5.4 million.

The cost of tearing down the hospital is much higher than the land value, estimated at $1.4 million.  That’s where the partners got a break, having paid the city only $1,000 for it.

Lumley and Poore wouldn’t confirm if they’ve reached the $5.4 million spending mark yet.

“We won’t go back to the city for more money,” said Poore. “If we lose money, then that’s our problem.”

Once demolition is complete later this year, GFive plans to apply for an official plan amendment and move ahead with commercial and residential development.

Potential tenants are already knocking on their door, said Lumley.

“We’re very pleased with the way it’s going,” added Poore.  “We’re very optimistic.”

Project updates are available at www.gfiveinc.com.

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