Moncton company buys swath of downtown, eyes redevelopment
Ashford Group purchases Assumption Place tower and a former downtown jail
Moncton's Ashford Group has spent tens of millions in recent weeks buying a swath of downtown real estate with an eye toward future development.
The company purchased Assumption Place tower — one of the tallest buildings in the city — along with the former Paramount Theatre next door. This week it added a former jail along Assomption Boulevard.
"I see opportunity," Jim Dixon, a principal with Ashford and its chief financial officer, said as he stood in the parking lot behind the jail. He described a vision of more retail, restaurants, office space and residential units on top.
He pointed to FiveFive Queen, an eight-storey building with retail, restaurants, condos and a small hotel, as an example of what he sees as possible.
He said addressing downtown parking will be a priority, and there's the possibility of using the eastern portion of the land along Downing Street for the city's plan for a new market.
"Moncton grows at a certain pace, so this is a long-term, go slow, find good projects — a project next year and then the year after," Dixon said.
Nothing is expected immediately, though.
"It's certainly a big play," said John Wishart, the CEO of the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce. "One of the most significant land acquisition moves we've seen in recent years."
Kevin Silliker, Moncton's director of economic development, said it opens opportunities for large new developments in an area below Main Street the city wants to see revamped.
"I think this transaction signals the changing possibilities and the changing dynamics in downtown," Silliker said.
The company purchased the 20-storey Assumption Place tower at the end of August for an undisclosed amount. Dixon described it as "millions." It included hundreds of parking spaces south of the building.
Assumption Life, an insurance company, previously owned the tower and will remain a tenant.
In early September, Ashford purchased a theatre-turned-club space along Westmorland Street for $1.1 million, property records show. On Monday, property records show, it purchased the former provincial jail on Assomption Boulevard for $1.3 million.
Dixon said work on the purchases started about 18 months ago.
The swath of land encompasses much of the block bordered by Main Street, Westmorland Street, Assomption Boulevard and Downing Street. It does not include the Delta Beausejour or the courthouse.
The company already owns other downtown land, office buildings and automotive shops.
Ashford-linked companies also own a portion of the block bordered by Westmorland, Assomption and Lutz.
Much of downtown south of Main Street is former rail or industrial land but now is largely covered in surface parking.
Another Moncton firm, Heritage Developments Ltd., also owns a large portion of the downtown west of the Ashford land, south of Main Street near Foundry and Lutz streets.
While developers often purchase property to hold for future projects, Wishart said there are signs the timing may be right for Ashford to move sooner than later.
'Dominoes are aligned'
Commercial vacancy rates in the city are low in the city, as are residential rental vacancy rates. Wishart said the cost of borrowing money is still relatively low.
"It just seems like all the dominoes are aligned for maybe a quicker transformation of some of that land," Wishart said.
The land is considered pivotal for the city's downtown vision.
"It's very important because it's the core of our downtown," said Anne Poirier Basque, the executive director of Downtown Moncton Centre-ville Inc. "It's very important for future riverfront development. It's important for the walkability of downtown and connectivity."
Dixon recently served as president of the business group, which promotes and runs services that include a facade improvement program.
Moncton's Downtown Core Community Improvement Plan, approved last year, calls for a new east-west city street to cut through the Ashford property parallel to Main Street. That plan protects the corridor for the future street.
There's no specific timeline for building the street. Bill Budd, Moncton's director of urban planning, said the street would depend on plans by developers.
"If that comes into play then that can really open up some smaller blocks for development that could really change the look of downtown, and we'll see how quickly that might happen," Wishart said.
The plan also envisions a new parking structure and relocating the Moncton Market to a space west of Downing Street and north of the future east-west street.
Ashford also owns the entire block bounded by Gordon, Highfield, Sangster and Campbell streets. Its main office is on the corner of Highfield and Gordon in the former YMCA.
And it owns several lots along Elm, Gordon and Highfield where Patrick Gillespie, another principal, previously told CBC the company hopes to redevelop as commercial and residential space.
Ashford Group includes several related companies: Ashford Properties Inc., Ashford Investments, Ashford Land Holdings Inc., and Ashford 770 Inc.
Its website in 2014 stated it owned or managed office, commercial, industrial and institutional real estate in excess of two million square feet throughout Atlantic Canada.
Ashford Investments was involved in schools built through public-private partnerships in Nova Scotia. Two years ago, the Nova Scotia government purchased three of the schools from Ashford Investments for close to $16.1 million.