Local group awaits decision on whether its prison...
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Feb 16, 2017  |  Vote 0    0

Local group awaits decision on whether its prison vision will set sail

Kingston Heritage

News — A self-imposed deadline is fast approaching for a Kingston group that’s pitching a $300 million redevelopment vision of Kingston Penitentiary.

George Hood, spokesperson for the Hatter’s Bay project, says they’d like to hear from the federal government by the end of February on whether their plans will sink or sail ahead.

“We’re reaching a point where someone’s got to make a decision,” said Hood in an interview.

Their vision is to transform the mothballed prison into a year-round attraction with a variety of residential, commercial and training uses. The centrepiece is an International Sailing Centre of Excellence, in addition to a wind research facility, retail shops and restaurants, public pathways, tourism component and 300 to 500 residential units.

The national sailing centre would be the third of its kind in the world, along with sites in England and Germany, but the only one located on fresh water, and patterned after other Canadian sports centres for rowing, volleyball, track and field and winter sports. “We didn’t win any sailing medals in the last Olympic Games. This is a sport Canada should do well at,” he added.

Transforming the waterside portion of the former prison into a sailing school would bring together coaches, fitness training and competitive athletes all year round.

Hood, a former vice principal and major fundraiser at Queen’s University, says he’s confident in the consulting team and financial numbers they’ve assembled. The group has secured funding from a “chartered financial institution” to invest up to $300 million in transforming Kingston Pen into a theme that fits with Kingston’s maritime history. “It’s all private money. We’ve not asked the government for a cent.”

The small but dedicated team is pursuing the prison redevelopment with the zeal of an inmate going over the wall. But in their vision, the towering prefab walls are gone, the National Historic Site buildings are preserved and renovated into mixed uses, and the once notorious prison is transformed into a place that would rival Toronto’s Distillery District. Hood also likened Kingston’s project to the transformation of Boston’s former jail into the Liberty Hotel.

The community group behind the scheme, which includes avid sailors Michael de la Roche, George Jackson and John Curtis and former mayor Harvey Rosen, first pitched the sailing centre idea four years ago. Since then, and with the change to a Liberal government, the group has hired a lobbying firm, consultants and top architects, while holding regular consultations with heritage experts, the mayor and council to try and gather support to get their plans off paper.

Hood says their intentions are genuine, and they’re not out to make a fast buck.

“We’re five Kingston guys. We want to do something for our hometown. We’re not doing this to make money.”

As part of their business plan, they’ve established a nonprofit holding company with a number of subsidiaries where bank loans would be flowed to undertake construction and renovation work at the heritage property. The payback would come through various agreements over stages, such as condominium or apartment building rights.

“It would be the largest single private investment in Kingston’s history — bigger than Feihe’s (infant formula plant) investment, and we’re not even communist,” Hood explained. “Think about the significance of that.”

The federal government’s real estate arm, Canada Lands Company, is in charge of the prime penitentiary lands on the shores of Lake Ontario. Canada Lands has been working with the city on developing a vision for the site.

The Hatter’s Bay project is just one of several of community ideas to emerge from the visioning exercise that’s currently underway involving Kingston Pen and nearby Portsmouth Olympic Harbour. Canada Lands is expected to produce a final list of acceptable development ideas this spring, which council will get to vote on, before the property is expected to be put up for sale.

Hood claims his group can be ready to offer sailing programs as early as this summer if given the chance. “We can buy the property or the federal government can give it to us. Either way we’re ready to go.”

He estimates the cost to purchase the eight-hectare prison property is about $20 million.

Kingston Pen quickly became one of the city’s top tourist attractions with over 60,000 visitors when it first opened for general public tours last year, and another season of tours in the so-called “Alcatraz North” will start in May.

The last inmates were transferred out of maximum security prison in September 2012.

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