In the plans, the Cannon Knitting Mills is known as "The Mills Innovation Exchange" — a historic building filled with workspaces for software developers and animators, and streetfront stores and coffee shops lining the lower floor.

There's just one problem. No one's moving in.

More than two years after developer Hamilton Reality Capital Corp. purchased the site, it is still trying to secure anchor tenants. Without them the project won't move forward, said Glen Norton, the city's manager of urban renewal.

"This is a $10- to 12-million project, and you don't do that on speculation," he said.

Located at Cannon and Mary streets, the vacant Cannon Knitting Mills is actually a collection of five buildings built between 1854 and 1935. Norton foresees it as drawing similar tenants to the McMaster Innovation Park. He'd like to see animators and software developers, and film production offices and recording studios.

One entrepreneur is already interested in locating a coffee shop there, Norton said. Another wants to open a convenience store.

But developers need commitment from larger tenants to guarantee there'll be enough income to move forward with the renovation.

"There won't be any significant money spent on it until some anchor tenants are found," Norton said.

It's not for lack of trying. The project has a website with photos and floor plans. 

The Mills will also be included in the city's upcoming Urban Spaces brochure, which markets available commercial space to potential takers around the GTA. City staff even use "guerilla marketing" to drop the brochure around Toronto coffee shops, Norton said.

In November, the Hamilton Realty Capital Corp. (which is owned by Forum Equity Partners) led a delegation of Hamilton "decision makers" to Communitech in Waterloo, Norton said. Communitech is similar to the vision for the Mills.

Almost a school board site

Last year, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board considered locating its headquarters there, but made a late-night decision to locate it at 50 Millwood Place instead.

The drawings for that gave "a visual of what sort of marvelous development is achievable," said Coun. Jason Farr, who represents Ward 2.

The Mills is a key piece of the Beasley neighbourhood, Farr said.

Not only is it a "funky old building" near the James North district, but it is part of "a neighbourhood in transition with dedicated people and aesthetic character," he said.

If the development moves forward, it will "transform the neighbourhood," said Sylvia Nickerson, president of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association.

A lower vacancy rate, including at the knitting mills property, "would be a huge change in how people perceive the downtown."

'Always hopeful'

One obstacle is the availability of low-cost downtown office space, Norton said.

"We're competing with a downtown office vacancy rate of 12.8 per cent right now," he said. "The rent on this is not going to be as cheap as someone can get in an office tower right now. Once that high vacancy rate goes away, this looks more attractive."

Another challenge is parking. Before the Mills can be fully developed, there needs to be parking for about 100 cars, Norton said.

There is no deadline, Norton said. The developer — and those interested in economic development in the city — will keep looking.

"I'm always hopeful," he said.