Not-for-profit has plans for seniors complex in area

Ken Kellar

A local committee is looking to work with an organization out of Winnipeg to bring affordable senior living to Fort Frances.

At council’s regular meeting on July 13, mayor and councillors heard a presentation from Pete Sanderson and Dr. Norman Blackie from Widlake Properties Inc. on their work in getting a 95-unit seniors complex built in the Transcona neighbourhood of Winnipeg.

Hugh Dennis of the Fort Frances Age Friendly Committee explained that they have been pursuing seniors housing in the area for some time, and after being put in contact with Sanderson, felt like they might be a good fit to get a project off the ground.

“[The Age Friendly Committee] been working diligently… to improve our housing for seniors in the Fort Frances area, and in fact in the Rainy River district area for a number of years,” Dennis said.

“I have spent a lot of time and a lot of emails talking with Pete and discussing seniors residences as they’d be applied to a small community like Fort Frances / Rainy River District.”

Sanderson and Blackie explained that they are part of a non-profit organization who have brought the Transcona property at 500 Widlake from initial concept through to final occupancy. Working with MMP Architects and M Builds, also out of Winnipeg, the group’s current build is accepting residents now and has reached 80 percent occupancy. Part of their design philosophy is to focus on the health and wellness of the residents who will eventually live in the building.

Sanderson noted that a local connection initially drew them to Fort Frances and showed them their skills could be put to use.

“We’re here because Scott Witherspoon brought us to Fort Frances,” Sanderson said.

“Scott just finished building our 95-unit state of the art seniors complex in Transcona… Scott and the folks we met in the Fort Frances/Rainy River region and the surveys done there indicate a serious need for seniors housing. We can deliver state of the art housing.”

Sanderson explained he has been managing property portfolios of co-op public investor housing and teaching for the Institute of Real Estate Management for some time, and has been active in the non-profit sector for the past ten years. Blackie is a retired PhD architect who has spent the last 18 years as the executive director of the capital planning branch of Manitoba Health, working to see the building of hospitals and long term care homes in the province. The two also have a panel of 15 advisors who they rely on for matters surrounding issues like accessibility and Indigenous housing needs.

Sanderson noted that one way in which they are different from other developers is that upon completion of a build, that property is community owned.

“If well managed, the benefits of community-owned projects grow in the community for 100 years or more,” Sanderson explained.

“Ideally a not for profit, with a board of directors primarily from this region or from the town… would be the actual owners, so from our viewpoint we call that community owned. It doesn’t mean the town owns it, exactly, but the town gets all the same benefits without the obligation of governing, and sometimes that’s a desirable characteristic.”

The build also doesn’t start until the community has confirmed their support of the project, which Sanderson said is “critical.”

“The critical issues from our viewpoint should we be asked to proceed in this community or the Fort Frances region would be the edification of a piece of property that can be used for seniors housing,” he explained.

“Either it’s for a specific building or it’s a larger piece of land for an eventual campus, and [we begin] once there is a dedication of property, even if it’s under conditions that protect the donor, the town, or any other not-for-profit group that may want to donate land.”

Following the presentation from Sanderson and Blackie, Councillor John McTaggart asked the pair if they had completed a survey to find out the needs of the seniors in the area, as well as what kind of units would be needed or desired in the region. While Sanderson said their interest is so preliminary that no such survey has been completed, he did note it was critical as part of their process.

“The survey has to be done,” Sanderson confirmed.

“We know with very little doubt that there will be a number of people who want housing, what we don’t know is whether the people who want housing can actually afford the cost of a rental, whether for a condo or anything else, so a questionnaire should be put together that invites people to response ideally to someone locally who would then have a series of questions that would help that person qualify and help us know if we could build 10, 20, 30 or 130 units.”

Additionally, Sanderson explained that the units could be rentals, leased or purchased outright depending on the needs and incomes of the seniors in the area. He explained the most likely scenario would be to start of with one and two bedroom affordable apartments for rent, adding that based on the rates of their units in Winnipeg would be available at $1,200 and $1,600 a month respectively, with almost all the utilities included.

“That includes heat, water, light, maintenance, management, insurance packages, cable tv, internet and laundry,” Sanderson said.

“That’s everything but parking, and that’s considered by Canada mortgage to be about 15 percent below the regular market rate, and it’s called affordable housing. The one bedrooms are running about $1,200, the two bedrooms are running about $1,600, and we haven’t found an appetite for three bedrooms in the seniors housing market so far.”

Mayor Caul thanked the two for their presentation, and stressed that the town is dedicated to ensuring senior housing in the area. She also noted that Pete had been to town for a previous public meeting.

“Pete was also here as was Scott Witherspoon and sat in when we had the public meetings regarding the Shevlin Woodyard,” Caul said.

“They’re interested enough that they came to Fort Frances even to be part of those discussions, so I know they are interested in doing something here in Fort Frances and I also know that Pete and his company, along with Hugh, were wanting to do this presentation tonight because they were wanting to be introduced to town council and have an opportunity to give you some ideas as to what they do and how they handle their business.”