Making the old new again: How adaptive reuse is changing Sault Ste. Marie's Mill Square

July 22, 2015 - In 2012, a group of private investors purchased the historic site of St. Mary’s Paper in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario that borders the waterfront in the Canal District. Bustling with new energy, Mill Square now occupies the once industrial space, functioning as a cultural hub that houses artists, entrepreneurs and businesses, while also being headquarters to the Algoma Conservatory of Music and Algoma University Fine Arts department. It will become home to an established and successful marketplace, as well as function as event space that is scheduled to open for booking on June 1, 2015.

The repurposing of St. Mary’s Paper is part of a growing trend known as adaptive reuse, taking an old building and giving it a new purpose. In order to preserve a sense of local history, developers often renovate the structure while adhering to the original architectural design. The repurposing of historic buildings creates sustainable communities by minimizing transportation, energy, and material costs that are associated with demolition and new building construction (Bullen, 20). The redeeming of derelict buildings further serves to maintain a sense of place by retaining the original streetscape of the city while using these local monuments as a vehicle for development and innovation. Older buildings are of inherent value for their historical and aesthetic significance, and should be viewed as non-renewable cultural capital (Shipley et al, 5).

Five sandstone buildings occupy the grounds that make up Mill Square in Sault Ste. Marie; The Machine Shop, the Administration Building, the Pulp Tower, the Yard Locker and the Board Mill. Each building forms part of a cohesive whole, designed to enhance the cultural climate and economy of Sault Ste. Marie through the creation of jobs and the attraction of residents, tourists, and students into the downtown-western vicinity. These buildings are remnants of Francis H. Clergue’s Industrial Empire, who came to the Algoma region in 1894. A native of Bangor, Maine, Clergue is known for his role in founding the locally iconic industries of Algoma Steel, St. Mary’s Paper, and Algoma Central Railway. The legacy of Clergue’s steel plant operations that became operable over a century ago continue to exist in the community today. Now known as Essar Steel Algoma, the company directly employs approximately 3400 people (Industry Canada), and as one of Sault Ste. Marie’s largest employers, is considered an industry that is pivotal to the region’s economy (Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation).

An enterprising and savvy businessman, Clergue laid the foundation for his empire within the short span of eight years, having begun in 1895 with the incorporation of the Sault Ste. Marie Pulp & Paper Company, the Algoma Central Railway followed with incorporation in 1899, and Algoma Steel Company formed in 1901 (Sault Museum). The Clergue residence on the St. Mary’s site was a remnant of the Hudson Bay fur trading company – no longer occupying its original grounds, the structure has been relocated and is on display at the Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Site (Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Site).

The closing of St. Mary’s Paper in 2011 foreshadowed a cultural surge in Sault Ste. Marie’s downtown area. Mill Square, which has created a new atmosphere in keeping the original Richardson-Romanesque architecture, preserves local history while capitalizing on a market not yet fully explored in the region. In addition to creating a sense of cultural community, there is also a marketplace that functions as a vibrant public gathering space that currently operates out of the old Municipal Fish Hatchery that sits alongside the east of the Square. Mill Market forms part of the multi-tiered plan to redevelop the Square into an urban-village, and is scheduled to relocate to the Board Mill and establish itself among the five historic buildings.

Mill Market brims with energy on a Saturday, ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 people coming through its doors in the summer months. With an array of food vendors, primary producers, artisans, farmers, and second-hand peddlers, your senses are fully engaged as you make your way through the shuffle. The insectarium Entomica will greet you on the way in, showcasing their interactive live exhibits of tropical insects from around the world, such as blazingly green katydids that dazzle you with a leaf-like resemblance.

The plan is for Entomica to join the Market in its move to the Board Mill Building sometime in 2016, provided that development goes smoothly. Mill Market functions as a space for Northern Ontarians to showcase their goods to residents, tourists, and out-of-town visitors, with profits being streamed into the local economy. Vendor presence at the Market has doubled since last year, with over 90 vendors exhibiting their wares between Mill Market and Mill Flea that operates on Sunday afternoons. On average, vendors earn anywhere from $75 to $2,000 in sales per market day. Supporting local farmers and creators helps to develop sustainable intraregional trade practices while relieving, in part, a dependency on imported goods. Consumers in the region are becoming empowered with the idea that the products they consume are available in their own back yard. In this way, Mill Market is building up the community and strengthening the economy.

As with most ventures, adaptive reuse comes with risks. The repurposing of older buildings can be economically unfeasible due to the “life cycle expectancy of existing materials” that “may fall short of news ones” (Bullen, 23), resulting in towering repairs and maintenance costs. In a research report prepared for The Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, findings unveiled that the costs of improving an older building were greater than demolishing and building a new one, however, the return on investment was higher, especially in medium sized commercial redevelopments, with costs being offset through the leasing, renting or selling of the premises to tenants at a high market price (Shipley et al, 24). The report further found that while it would cost $155 per square foot to bring a new, medium-sized commercial property to market, it would cost $169 for a reused commercial property of the same size. Data indicates that a large commercial property would encounter savings in choosing to reuse, with a market rate of $102 per square foot, while a new, large commercial property would have a price of $165 per square foot. While heritage redevelopment projects have the potential to be more costly, the surplus is not significant.

When sub-par construction has been performed on the structure, or the building has not been built to endure, improving the structure for future use is threatened (Bullen, 21). The idea that it is more affordable to build a new structure rather than to amass enthusiasm and resources into an older one has spurred the demolition of “dozens” or “perhaps hundreds” of buildings considered to be of historic value to Canada (R. Shipley et al, 505). Barriers to redevelopment include accessing loans from banks who cast glares of askance on redevelopment project returns, a rigid application of building code regulations by inspectors, recruiting skilled labourers and accessing original materials, as well as disunity among developers and heritage conservationists with respect to their approaches to building conservation (Shipley et al). One of the most difficult balancing acts is the “[. . .] desire to preserve older buildings for historical and aesthetic reasons, the need for regeneration, and the legitimate expectation of owners to make their properties profitable” (Shipley, 506). As Chief Historian with Heritage Toronto Gary Miedema said, “[t]oo often the relationship between preservation and development is perceived as an either/or, and that’s a great disservice to both [. . .] It’s not about trying to lock a place in time, but to enrich the pieces we have” (Kidd).

Destination North, a public-private venture aimed at transforming the once St. Mary’s Paper Mill into a “Living Centre for Ecology, Culture and Wilderness Experience…” (Mill Square), has partnered with Ontario Works to develop an initiative known as Superior Skills. The program is designed to train participants in a particular life skill that will enable them to add to the productive output of the community. In September of 2014, Superior Skills offered an eight week sewing program, whose mandate was to train 10 social assistance recipients sartorial skills, and operated classes out of the derelict public school, Etienne Brule, in the west-end area. The goal of the training sessions was to arm the participants with the skills they need in order find permanent work or to be a catalyst that fuels entrepreneurial pursuits. At the end of the program, the students showcased their wares at the local yarn shop and café, Shabby Motley, and the company Stitch Co was formed, a subsidiary company of Destination North that now employs the successful participants full-time.

They continue to use the elementary school as their work space, with the plan of relocating to Mill Square in the future. The employees sell their hand-sewn goods locally, including at the Mill Market. In addition to developing their own retail line, Stitch Co. also takes custom orders. As the venture matures, Stitch Co. plans to expand into the market of leather wares while offering more training sessions. You can read more on Stitch Co. here. Superior Skills has made a long-term investment in our community by making the participant’s skill sets the focal point of the product’s marketability. Further training sessions include Grow Co, aimed at agriculture and local food production practices, with the ultimate goal being to provide the participant with an employable skill set. These are only some of the ways in which the new local marketplace and urban village are making Sault Ste. Marie a better place to live and grow.

By Mandy Masse, Summer Policy Intern with Northern Policy Institute

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