Almost a year to the day after the City of Hamilton announced that Waterfront Shores development group had won the bid to develop Pier 8, another ambitious development project was announced with fanfare on the shores of Bayfront Park.
Before a gaggle of politicians, and reps from Mohawk College, McMaster University and local unions, Aeon Studio Group revealed their plan to build a film studio, residential and retail development on the Barton-Tiffany lands. The live-work-play proposal would occupy land the city owns and had assembled for a stadium for the Ti-Cats.
Before that day, no one knew much about the Aeon Studio Group, and we still don’t. Their website, is a single page, with no mention of Barton-Tiffany. A Facebook site appeared the day before the announcement in Hamilton.
The three partners at the Bayfront Park announcement were Mike Bruce, a studio and location manager for film and TV, Jeff Anders owner of The Mark, an online publisher of opinion pieces, and Robbie David a producer and production manager.
So the question is, how are these guys going to pull this off?
“We are not by any means wealthy people ourselves,” Mike Bruce said when I asked him where the millions of dollars would come from for the project. “We have investors involved, we’ve been speaking to different capital groups and development partners, that sort of thing.”
This development has long shot written all over it.
Though they seem to have enthusiasm and best wishes on their side, the money part of it is a crushing challenge. First off, they don’t own any of the land yet. Not the city’s 15 acres, or another parcel formerly owned by Stelco that they made an offer for but is in the “dilligence” stage.
The Stelco land will have industrial contaminants on it, so will parts of the city parcel. Environmental testing has already begun, and then it will have to be cleaned up for unknown costs.
According to court documents, the studio group intends to buy the Stelco land for $4 million. What they will pay for the 15 acres owned by the city is unknown.
Unlike Pier 8 which went through a public competitive bid process, the negotiations over the sale of the Barton-Tiffany lands have been going on in private with the city for over a year, according to Bruce.
“The sale will be at fair market value,” Glen Norton head of economic development for the city says. Though the city’s web site lists property for sale online or through a request for proposal or tender, an RFP isn’t required for all sales, It’s another choice If you want to move faster, ” Norton says.
But don’t expect anything to move too fast on Barton-Tiffany. “It’s not going to happen all at once, even five years would be really remarkable,” Norton says of the complicated process.
Even with the money and backers assembled, the plans drawn up, and the city’s endorsement, the Pier 8 build was expected to take 5 to 8 years according to the project architect Bruce Kuwabara.
One year after the announcement of the winning bid that development is already behind schedule. It’s being held up by LPAT (formerly OMB) challenges and by high water levels that have delayed building of a wall for shoreline protection.
I asked Mike Bruce if there was one key element that fell in to place that convinced Aeon to announce the studio/ residential/ retail project was going forward. There wasn’t, except they were pretty happy the city rezoned the property to permit the new uses.
I went to the public consultation in November 2018, where citizens and particularly residents of the Barton-Tiffany area were asked their feelings about a “possible” film studio locating in the neighbourhood. Certainly there were residents who were happy that something/anything might be built on the rundown, abandoned land. Others thought a film studio could be better housed in the industrial sector. My feeling was the city had already made up their mind it was a good idea, and they apparently were already deep in discussion wth Aeon Studio Group.
Big developments are tricky business. It’s hard to forget the stadium location fiasco, or to see the lonely remains of James Street Baptist Church and its stalled development and not get disheartened. I’m worried about Pier 8’s slow progress, and nearby Promenade Park was supposed to be completed this spring, I don’t think it’s started.
The future of a film studio at Barton-Tiffany, which by the way Aeon partners say will employ hundreds (sometimes), not thousands as touted by the city, will be an ongoing saga. The ambitious plan to build residential and retail faces a long and winding road.
There may be lights and there may be cameras, but action will be a long time coming.
Story by Kathy Renwald. This story was published July 1, 2019