Taking time out of their busy days for a newspaper photograph at the former Central School last week was no trouble at all for Michael Ebert and Ray Doerksen, co-owners of the St. Marys-based Omega Paw pet accessories manufacturing and marketing business. Speaking to the Journal Argus photographer, the duo admitted they’ve recently spent hours examining the exterior nooks and crannies of the historic limestone building, brainstorming the possibilities for future use.
They only had one opportunity to examine the interior nooks and crannies: a failed Oct. 25 auction by the Avon Maitland District School Board, at which Ebert and Doerksen’s top bid of $450,000 was denied because it didn’t meet the board’s pre-determined reserve. But on Tuesday, Nov. 22, they learned they’ll soon have all the time they want to roam the hallways and classrooms, after the board agreed to sell them the recently-closed school for $650,000.
The deal is set to close Feb. 8. The intervening weeks, Doerksen told the Journal Argus, will be used to work with the Town of St. Marys to have the property revert to its stated Official Plan designation as “residential” — a designation that was amended when the document was created to allow for the pre-existing school usage.
“We’re excited about it. It’s going to be an adventure,” Doerksen said.
Under the proposed name “Central School Manor,” the duo hopes to convert the building into “luxury condominiums” geared towards people aged 55 and older. According to a news release from the Omega Paw co-owners, the redeveloped building “will have approximately 14 suites in total and will range from 900 to 2,000 square feet. The suites will offer 14 foot ceilings, open concept designs, indoor parking, an elevator and a private garden courtyard.”
Reflecting on their extensive brainstorming as they wandered the grounds over the past several weeks, Doerksen said he expects one of the biggest challenges will be providing the elevator without affecting the beauty of either the exterior or interior. The central boiler system will have to be removed, replaced by separate heating systems for each unit. And he admitted the gymnasium — added in more recent years to the west of the building — provided the most puzzling predicament, until indoor parking came to mind.
“We toyed with that for a while,” Doerksen admitted. “But we’ve talked to several realtors in town and they say there’s definitely a need for something like that. People like the idea of not having to shovel snow all winter.
“There’s demand for this type of living, especially if you can provide indoor parking.”
As for the main building itself, Doerksen argues it lends itself perfectly to condo development. With its high ceilings and heritage-style trim, the duo doesn’t envision having to tear out very many of the interior walls — which, incidentally, are double brick, so serve as effective sound barriers — to serve the market demand.
The units will be built to suit. They expect there will be a couple of 900 square feet units, fit into the existing footprint of the building. Based on their expectation of market demand, most units will probably be in the 1,000 to 1,200 square feet range, perhaps sometimes requiring the tearing out of a wall between two classrooms.
“We’re flexible on the layout because (the size of many of the units) can be doubled,” Doerksen explained.
The third floor might be home to as many as five luxury units in the 2,000 square foot range. And the second floor library — featuring curved walls and large windows — is already in the 2,000 square foot range without removing any walls.
“That one’s going to be a showpiece and, probably, will go to someone who’s going to want to have it built to suit.”
There will be storage units in the basement. “And if there’s more interest in the smaller units, that’s how it will sell.”
Doerksen says the Central School Manor proposal fits in with a recent trend across Ontario. He cited the former Stinson School in Hamilton as an example.
Central School, he suggested “is quite interesting in its layout . . . It gives a nice envelope to work with. We can provide some pretty nice spaces.” And the existing entrance — both inside and out — lends itself to a grand feeling.
“You even get the idea that people living there can get the feeling they’re in a grand castle . . . It does command quite a presence.”
Doerksen and Ebert have initiated talks with the Town of St. Marys to have the property revert to residential zoning. In an interview with the Journal Argus, Town CAO Rob Brindley said he hopes the process can move ahead as quickly as possible.
“We’re encouraged that it’s a local individual (who bought the property). It has also been nice to hear that the school is not going to sit vacant, which is what has happened in various other communities.”
The duo has not yet, however, initiated further talks with the McCotter family, owners of a residential property abutting the former school’s teacher parking lot. That oddly-shaped, quarter-acre property sits across Elizabeth Street from the school, and was included by the school board in the Oct. 25 auction despite requests from the McCotters to sever it and sell it separately from the main school lot.
The Omega Paw co-owners did have informal discussions with the McCotters after the auction. But Doerksen noted “we can’t really sell (the parking lot) at this point because it’s (officially) not in our possession.”
He added, however, that they plan to renew their discussions with the family. “Our intentions, at this point, are to sell the side lot. We do not need it.”
With all these negotiations still ahead of them as they seek to convert the school into condominiums, Doerksen and Ebert have been buoyed by what they say is an enthusiasm within the community to see the project succeed.
“People have been very supportive. They’re saying that it’s really the best use for this type of building,” Doerksen commented.
“The word is spreading quickly about this. It’s nice to see there’s a bit of a buzz for it.”