Cannon Knitting Mills: Were the last 5 years a failure?

For years, the city partnered with a private company to try to bring tenants to the Cannon Knitting Mills. Now it's up for sale again. Was it worth it?

The building is up for sale after years of not being able to find tenants

After 10 years and still no anchor tenants, the Cannon Knitting Mills are up for sale again. The city says the last decade of effort wasn't a failure, but others disagree. (Sheryl Nadler)

For five years, the city partnered with a private company to try to bring tenants to the vacant Cannon Knitting Mills.

Now the building is up for sale, and the need for the partnership is all but gone. Still, the city maintains the last decade was not a failure.

Late last week, "for sale" signs went up on the expansive Beasley property at Cannon and Mary. The move effectively marks the end of a partnership between the city and Forum Equity Partners to market and revitalize the building.

Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor, calls the partnership "an experiment to some extent." He doesn't think it failed.

There's a lot of interest in the building, he said. And without the partnership, the previous owner would have knocked it down.

It was a good attempt at revitalizing the property, he said, but "unfortunately, over what has been nearly 10 years now, those good intentions haven't played out."

Whoever owns it next needs to do something with it, not just stare at it.- Jeremy Freiburger

The Cannon Knitting Mills is the last property for Hamilton Realty Capital Corporation (HRCC), a joint investment initiative between the city and Forum Equity Partners. City councillors will examine HRCC's future in July, Farr said. At that time, it will likely be dissolved.

Was going to be the 'Mills Innovation Exchange'

HRCC branded the knitting mills the "Mills Innovation Exchange." It envisioned a building filled with software developers and animators, and street-level stores and coffee shops. But it didn't attract any anchor tenants.

The knitting mills themselves are actually a collection of buildings built between 1854 and 1935. In 2012, Farr and then-councillor Brian McHattie tried to persuade the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to locate its headquarters there, only for trustees to vote in a late-night decision to put it on the Mountain instead.

Last summer, HRCC hosted the Cannon Knitting Mills Exploration, an event that hosted "the brightest names in technology, fashion, architecture, culture, and urban design to ignite a transformation," according to promotional material. In hindsight, Farr said, it was a sort of last-ditch effort.

Still, a city staff report on Friday paints the building being up for sale as "a positive event."

It was a very poorly implemented idea from the outset.- John Neary , resident

"It may provide an opportunity for a new owner to come forward who has a vision for the building, which would see it developed sooner than the current owner's plans," said the report from Jason Thorne, general manager of planning and economic development.

City 'fairly confident' it will get its money back

Thorne said he's also "fairly confident" the city's loan of $184,313 for capital improvements to the building will be repaid when the building is sold. Under the agreement, the city paid for half of the cost of the building's upkeep.

Jeremy Freiburger, executive director of Cobalt Connects, sees the effort as a failure.

Freiburger was part of an initial group assembled to create a vision for the building, although that never came to fruition. That's what was lacking, he said.

"When you've got a building that's got no tenants and is in a challenging location and has environment issues, no tenants are lining up and saying, 'That's what we want,'" he said. "You have to create a personality or vision around who the property should be occupied by."

Unlike Farr, Freiburger says maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if the building was demolished. His worst fear is that it will sit vacant for another 10 years.

Don't just stare at it

"Whoever owns it next needs to do something with it, not just stare at it," said Freiburger.

John Neary lives across from the street. He wasn't happy with the city's agreement with Forum Equity in the first place. Combine the city's obligation to pay half the upkeep costs with the province's tax credit for vacant buildings, he said, and there was little incentive to work on the project. 

"It was a very poorly implemented idea from the outset," said Neary, who wants to see the building saved and designated as a heritage property.

The sale brings hope, he said — but only if the city puts rules in place that make it hard to keep the building vacant. 

"You have to make it expensive to not develop it."


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