Shuttered Kingston Pen re-imagined as world-class sailing centre

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Shuttered Kingston Pen re-imagined as world-class sailing centre

It may be years before the notorious Kingston Penitentiary, which officially closed last month, is redeveloped. But one interesting proposal for the sprawling property is already making the rounds.

How about this: KP rebooted as ... a world-class sailing centre.

A local consortium, including two former Olympians, is floating (sorry) the idea of an international training centre for competitive sailors in the place that once housed infamous killers such as Clifford Olson and Paul Bernardo and was the scene of hangings and bloody riots.

It would be part of a larger development that would include condominiums and shops on the 8.4-hectare property that sits on the shore of Lake Ontario, the Kingston Whig-Standard recently reported.

“We want to make Kingston an international sailing capital that is unprecedented in the world,” group spokesman George Hood told the Whig-Standard.

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Hood, a former vice-principal of Kingston's Queen's University, told the Toronto Star that the city is already a prominent sailing hub. The prison sits adjacent to Portsmouth Olympic Harbour, which hosted sailing events for the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.

[ Related: Inside Kingston Penitentiary ]

Hood said proposal came out of a conversation he had with Michael de la Roche, an emergency doctor in nearby Belleville who was a member of the Canada's 1976 Olympic team. The group expanded to include local yachtsman George Jackson and John Curtis, who competed for Canada in the 2004 Olympics.

“We’re basically just four guys that know something about sailing and want to see something done in our hometown," Hood told the Star.

The group envisions redeveloping the property with the world's largest freshwater sailing centre, a 500-unit condo complex, restaurants and shops. The sailing centre could be used to train future Olympians and other elite-level sailors and serve as a home for coaches, trainers and other supports for competitors. Sailing-related retailers would also be attracted to the centre.

“There’s nothing of this complexity, nothing of this magnitude anywhere,” Hood told the Whig-Standard.

The project would keep KP's front gate and turrets to retain the prison's familiar look.

“We’d make it really, really kind of funky,” Hood told the Star. “This is the kind of place you’d like to go and have dinner on a Friday night.”

The proposal, which the group estimates would cost $50 million to execute, is getting a guardedly positive reception.

“What George and others are proposing is very interesting,” Jeff Garrah, chief executive officer of Kingston Economic Development Corp., told the Whig-Standard.

“I think we have to look at a hybrid model there, a public-private development opportunity.”

A spokeswoman for the Correctional Service of Canada emailed the Star to say no decisions have been made yet on the future of the penitentiary or the land.

The government has valued the property and buildings at $17.6 million, the Globe and Mail reported.

[ Related: As Kingston Pen closes, people are offering big bucks to get in ]

Any major redevelopment is complicated by the fact KP, which opened in 1835 as the latest in modern penal thinking, has been designated a national historic site. Individual heritage designations were placed on three buildings and the corner guard towers, the Globe said.

The most common proposal has been to turn the prison into a tourist attraction, similar to Alcatraz. A series of tours organized after KP closed, with proceeds going to a local charity, sold out quickly.

But Garrah said he thinks the property would do better as a mixed development with a museum component rather than turning the Pen into a vast museum.

"We've looked at the numbers ... and I don't think it makes sense," he said.

A current museum, located across the street in the former warden's residence, draws between 25,000 and 30,000 annually.