Bold ideas for downtown Chatham

·5 min read

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Downtown Chatham Centre is poised to be re-imagined on a grand scale.

The first phase of a multi-million dollar plan called “Imagine Chatham-Kent” would see the Chatham-Kent Civic Centre, the Chatham Public Library and the Cultural Centre rehomed in the vacant Sears building.

But there’s more. In the second phase of the ambitious scheme, a 4,000-seat entertainment complex with an ice surface will be built on the mall’s current footprint.

An outdoor festival area, bright and airy flex meeting spaces and a revamped historic-looking streetscape on King Street are also in the offing.

A third phase that would be privately owned would see the development of hotel and possible residential space at the east end of the complex.

Described as a “collaboration like no other,” the state-of-the-art project was unveiled to reporters June 7 at a special media briefing held by the developers spearheading the plan.

Main spokesman Rob Myers led the talk, laying out the vision shared by fellow investors Jessica Tsirimbis, Pete Tsirimbis, Ron Nydam, Don Tetrault and Jim Bullock – the people behind the proposed CK Community Hub and Entertainment Complex.

Myers, who is currently revamping the former Navistar property with partners Tetrault and Mike Vagi, said the time is ripe for the Imagine Chatham-Kent proposal.

“We believe it’s the right thing to do for this area,” Myers said. “It’s something we believe in and we’ve put our money where our mouths are.”

With the exception of Bullard, a former president and CEO of Cadillac Fairview who helped build Toronto’s Eaton Centre, all of the investors call Chatham-Kent home.

The effect of the new development will be far-reaching, Myers added, noting it will help bring investment to the municipality.

“It’s a game changer for this area over the next 50 to 100 years,” he added.

“It’s not about money,” he noted, adding, it’s about improving the entire community of Chatham-Kent.

The group of six investors also plan on paying homage to Chatham-Kent’s rich farming heritage and sports history in the development by establishing an agricultural hall of fame and a sports hall of fame.

Rock climbing, farmer’s markets, indoor soccer, concerts, roller skating and enhanced Remembrance Day ceremonies are just some of the ideas being put forward.

The plan calls for the municipality to own the Civic Centre building and entertainment complex, with the remainder to be privately owned.

On Monday night, Chatham-Kent council will get a first-hand look at the Imagine Chatham-Kent proposal, but approval is not yet on the table.

Administration is expected to be tasked with compiling a report on the matter. A full business case, including the estimated value of the Chatham-Kent’s buildings that will be vacated, will come back to council later this summer.

Currently there is no formal partnership between the municipality and the investor group and no expenses have yet been incurred by the municipality in regards to the plan.

However, the investor group has already spent “several hundred thousand dollars,” Myers said, on plans, including the retention of the Windsor firm Architectural Design Associates.

According to Pete Tsirimbis, the idea is being modelled in part on London’s example that brought their arena to the city’s downtown core.

“I would suggest that this is a step up,” Tsirimbis said, adding “Not only are we paying homage to our past, we’re creating a bright future.”

Mayor Darrin Canniff told reporters the project is exciting for Chatham-Kent.

“It’s obvious that I support this,” Canniff said. “This project will spur so much growth in Chatham-Kent.”

Resident attraction and retention is the goal, he added.

“When we do something like this, the rest of Ontario is going to take note,” he said.

Canniff stressed the developers aren’t just an investor’s group.

“They are Chatham-Kent people stepping up.”

Costs for the project have yet to be determined, Canniff said.

“We’re not talking about numbers yet, we’re still trying to figure that out,” he added.

However, divesting Chatham-Kent of its many surplus buildings is a priority for the municipality. A KPMG efficiency review in November 2021 indicated the greatest cost savings for the municipality could be found by consolidating services in multi-purpose community hubs and selling off some of its 150 surplus buildings.

Costs to repair the civic centre’s failing heating and cooling system, expanding the library by the recommended 10,000 square feet, enlarging the space at the museum and ongoing costs associated with the upkeep of the aging Chatham Memorial Arena are all factors that council must consider.

Built in 1980, the DCC had some initial success, but ultimately the retail complex had a negative impact on Chatham’s bustling downtown and the number of people visiting the city’s core has dwindled over the years.

Currently the DCC has just 28-per-cent occupancy and has changed hands three times in the past five years.

To this day, many local residents are disgruntled because irreplaceable historic buildings were torn down to make way for the mall, including the destruction of Harrison Hall, the former home of Chatham’s city hall.

If approved, the timeline for each phase of the project is estimated to take one-and-a-half to two years with a completion target of 2027.

Nydam’s company J.P. Contractors will carry out the work. The business is renowned for restoring historic buildings, including the work in the Retro Suites project.

Pam Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chatham Voice

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