Old hotel could become market square

Duane Hicks

A local committee of stakeholders is recommending the old Rainy Lake Hotel be demolished and redeveloped as a “Mainstreet Market Square.”
The preliminary plans were unveiled at a public meeting last Wednesday night at the Legion.
The market square may contain a gateway paying homage to the former Rainy Lake Hotel (possibly using some of the bricks from the original building), along with market stalls, a band shelter, outdoor heaters, trees, and public washrooms.
“A market square can contain a lot of different things,” said Rainy River Future Development Corp. consultant Tannis Drysdale, who has been working with the committee tasked by the town with reviewing potential uses for the property, which has been vacant since 2005, not drawn any interest from the private sector, and increasingly has become prohibitive to repair.
“Street markets that include fresh food and produce, crafts and jewellery, art, music and entertainment, bazaars.
“They also provide a greenspace in the middle of the downtown—a place for people to sit, to play, and to come together,” she added.
Drysdale said the committee wants the market to play a role the Rainy Lake Hotel had played in the community over the years and be “a gathering place.”
The plans are based on a study the BIA had commissioned from consultants Hilderman, Thomas, Frank and Cram.
Preliminary estimates put a $1.6-million price tag on the project, including $900,000 for demolition and $700,000 for site preparation, landscaping, and construction.
Ideally, the project could be paid for through a funding partnership consisting of FedNor and Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. grants ($420,000 each) and local dollars ($760,000).
Local funding could be through the town, as well as partners like the BIA and Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce.
Drysdale said the idea has been supported by the BIA, Chamber, and museum advisory committee.
The Rainy Lake review committee, which consists of representatives of the Town of Fort Frances, BIA, Chamber, and RRFDC, with the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry serving in an advisory capacity, now is looking for the public’s input on it.
Anyone with ideas can e-mail Drysdale at ecdev@fort-frances.com
There is no timeline to get the “Mainstreet Market Square” project done, although Drysdale noted the committee would like to make a recommendation to council later this spring.
Drysdale said at that point, it’s totally up to council to do what it feels is appropriate, whether that means making a decision on it or not, or perhaps seek funding before agreeing to it.
About 20 people attended the meeting, who fielded various questions during the meeting.
Current condition
The major issue with the property is that it is in such a state of disrepair that it would be less costly to tear it down and re-purpose the land than restore the building.
The Rainy Lake Hotel, built in 1928, was designed in the Spanish Revival-style by an architect from Duluth. The complete cost for the building was $175,000.
It remained open, with a succession of owners, until 2005.
Over its last 20 years, however, the hotel suffered from a lack of maintenance. For the last 15 years, the third floor was closed.
The interior finishes are beyond repair, noted Drysdale. There are hazardous materials in the building, and major structural systems and plumbing failures. And there are issues with mould.
Chief Building Official Rick Hallam, who recently toured the old building with economic development officer Geoff Gillon, attested to its poor condition.
Hallam noted there are sewer problems, and that between 1980 and 2003, the town deployed forces to clean the sewers attached to the building 39 times.
“I can tell you I have been in that basement when it had flooded and there was close to one foot of raw sewage,” he recalled.
Hallam added the building’s structure has not been compromised to the point where it is a danger to anybody, but the concrete foundation walls have cracked and any significant rainstorm results in flooding.
The roof also has holes in it.
It is full of mould and mildew, and the boilers and plumbing don’t work.
“In my opinion . . . the building is beyond reclamation,” said Hallam.
“The cost to remediate that building to its former glory, or even to make it into something, would be far in excess of what it would cost to build brand new,” he added.
Hallam said it’s possible to take down the building safely and without harming its neighbours on Scott Street, adding the demolition of Robert Moore School was a good example of how it can be done properly.
Funding hurdles
A major hurdle that has to be worked out, however, is who is going to pay to make the project happen.
One factor is senior government funding. Drysdale said because the site would be a tourism draw, and an opportunity to encourage downtown modernization and economic development as opposed to simply demolition, senior government may take an interest in it.
At the same time, she stressed there’s no commitment by any government at this point and there’s no knowing whether they, or the town, will be a financial position to fund such as project.
Even if the project becomes a reality, then there’s operating costs for a market square.
“That would have to be worked out probably between the BIA and the Town of Fort Frances in a contractual relationship, but I don’t imagine it would be that different than the relationship that already exists,” said Drysdale.
“So it would be a full management agreement, where the land would probably stay the town’s but all the programming would be done by the Chamber of Commerce or the BIA,” she explained.
“So they would hire the students that would get the vendors to come and sell their wares, and the vendors might give them $25—that kind of thing.”
Drysdale said the BIA has shown an interest in the ongoing maintenance of the market square, but it has not been set in stone.
She added the BIA has been putting money away in reserves for a project such as this. When the committee makes a recommendation to council, it will indicate any investment from the BIA, as well as an agreement as to what their ongoing costs would be.
The committee also will ask the Chamber of Commerce about helping fund the project.
When asked about increasing the municipal tax base, Drysdale conceded it’s not likely the site would generate tax revenue. But RRFDC chair George Emes and downtown business owner said that making money to go back into the maintenance of the square definitely would be a priority.
While there was a brief discussion as to whether it would be better to the redevelop the property into a tax-generating commercial building, Hallam said he felt re-purposing the property for a private venture, like office space, wouldn’t accomplish much as there are no new businesses of that nature coming to Fort Frances.
And if any current businesses decided to relocate there, they would be leaving another commercial space vacant, essentially trading one tax base for another.
The Rainy Lake Hotel currently is owned by an insolvent corporation. It not owned by the Town of Fort Frances.
The town had put it up for tax sale early last year, but received no interest. The town has until February, 2013 to decide whether they want to vest the property.
If they do not, they must restart the tax sale process.
As far as liens against the property, Fort Frances treasurer Laurie Witherspoon said the province has removed its liens while the federal government never had any.
Any other liens would be waived should the town choose to vest the property in its name. Municipal taxes would be written off while education taxes would be clawed back to the local public school board.
Another question was how much is the old hotel a liability to the town if the structure poses a health risk at some point?
Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig said that’s one of the reasons the town is involved with finding a use for the property.
He reiterated the town does not own the building, but it has identified risks and taken action, such as removing some attachment and apparatus from the outside of the building, and made sure access points were secure on several occasions.
McCaig added the fire department regularly inspects it in the interest of public safety—even though the town is not saying it holds any responsibility for the property.
“Who else is going to do it if the town doesn’t do it?” he mused.