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What Laurentian University might sell to get out of its financial hole

Part of Laurentian University's plan to get on better financial footing is to review its real estate holdings and see what properties it could sell or rent out. We look at the possibilities.

Sudbury school plans a real estate review in Phase 2 of its court-guided restructuring process

Laurentian University wants to review its vast real estate holdings to see if any property can be sold or leased to help ease its financial problems. (Erik White/CBC)

If Laurentian University's financial restructuring plan gets the green light in court Thursday, one of the next steps would be reviewing its real estate holdings. 

That portfolio includes two grand houses that could fetch over $1 million each and hundreds of undeveloped hectares surrounding the campus in Sudbury, Ont.'s south end, some of it prime waterfront property.

There also are the assets on campus, including an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an uncertain future.

Here's a look some of the possibilities if pieces of Laurentian University end up on the open market.

Bell Mansion

Laurentian University has owned the historic Bell Mansion since 1969, but hasn't been involved in the day-to-day operations of the art gallery it houses since the 1990s. (Erik White/CBC )

Built in 1906 by lumber baron William Bell, the mansion was transferred to Laurentian University in 1969 when it became home to what was then known as the Laurentian University Museum and Arts Centre.

In the 1990s, it became the Art Gallery of Sudbury, but the grand stone house and its sprawling grounds continue to be owned by the university.

The art gallery has been making plans for the past decade to move to a more suitable space (which it hopes will be the city's proposed Junction complex), and in that time Laurentian has also tried unsuccessfully to get the City of Greater Sudbury to take the mansion off its hands.

It's said to need a lot of repairs, which will be made more expensive by its designated heritage status.

Still, Sutton-Benchmark broker Tanya VandenBerg said as a "very unique property" in a "great location" assessed at $1.3 million, it could attract interest from a private investor, perhaps involved in the hospitality industry. 

The president's house

Laurentian University presidents have lived in this house near downtown Sudbury since 1965, when the property was purchased for $130,000. (Erik White/CBC )

Built in 1930 by Inco superintendent Ralph D. Parker— who would go on to be the first chair of the Laurentian University board of governors and have a building on campus named for him— it was owned for years by lumber company and airline owner Ben Merwin. 

As a member of the Idylwylde Golf and Country Club, he convinced those planning the new university in the 1960s to not expropriate the golf course, but to instead build next door on Ramsey Lake Road.

Laurentian University bought the house in 1965 for $130,000 — it was seen as one of the few houses in Sudbury that could play the vital role of hosting receptions and parties.

Ashley Thomson, a librarian at Laurentian whose 45 years ended in a layoff this month, attended many of them, including some of the estimated 2,000 events held during the seven years Henry Best was university president between 1977 and 1984. 

Thomson said he'd be sad to see the president's house or other parts of the university sold off.

"I'd be a bit reluctant to start selling off bits and pieces of the place for hotels or gas stations or whatever else they want to put there. I'd rather keep it the way it is." 

VandenBerg figures the house, assessed for property tax purposes at $740,000, could fetch over $1 million.

"Right now we do have a pretty fierce seller's market," she said. 

"People nowadays are looking for larger homes. It does have a really great yard space. It's a huge property."

The campus 

Laurentian owns a vast, undeveloped bushland surrounding it's Sudbury campus of more than 283 hectares. (Erik White/CBC)

The most recent addition to Laurentian's holdings is the school of architecture in downtown Sudbury. The former farmer's market property, plus the historic CPR Telegraph building, was purchased from the city for $1.3 million in 2012.

But most students attend classes on the 283 hectares off Ramsey Lake Road where the new university was built in the 1960s.

Much of that property is undeveloped bush land, including some prime waterfront property on Lake Nepahwin, where the university has its own beach, plus the entire shoreline of the smaller and swampier Bennett Lake. 

"Developers would definitely want to get those waterfront lots; of course the cost of developing those waterfront lots is going to be pretty significant," said VandenBerg.

Laurentian University owns some of the last undeveloped waterfront on Sudbury's Lake Nepahwin. (Erik White/CBC)

Any development would also likely face opposition from the community.

A proposed parkway between South Bay Road and Regent Street in 2006 saw Sudburians loudly protest the dissecting of the popular trail network around Laurentian, which was repeated in later years until the city totally struck the idea from its planning documents in 2016.

In recent years, the only public discussion about Laurentian's lands have centred on a couple who bought a house in the area, only to find out half their backyard, including their septic field, was encroaching on university property.

James Crispo said they offered Laurentian $70,000 plus a larger piece of land for the 389 square metres, but the university refused and filed a lawsuit against them. 

"My wife and I have always been hopeful," he said. 

"I'm not confident just yet that this is the end of the litigation against us. For the last four and half years, we can't understand why the university has approached this seemingly minor property issue the way they have." 

The buildings

If Laurentian decides not to reopen its swimming pool, the list of those wanting to take it over could be short. (https://laurentian.ca/voyageurs/recreation)

If Laurentian ends up with extra space within its buildings on campus, VandenBerg figures there'll be a limited market for leasing in a relatively isolated location.

Laurentian already has a lease agreement with the three federated universities — Thorneloe, Huntington and University of Sudbury — whose buildings and residences sit on Laurentian land. But those properties are in question now along with the future of the schools themselves.

The campus building to be talked about the most during the restructuring is the Jeno Tihanyi Olympic Gold Pool, which has been closed for two years.

Laurentian claims it needs $10 million in repairs, but Sudbury Laurentian Swim Club coach Dean Henze has doubts about that number.

However, he figures the cutting of the relatively inexpensive varsity swim team is a sign Laurentian wants to get out of the pool business, and worries about who could step in. 

"I think the list would be pretty short," said Henze. 

"I mean if they were basically willing to give it away, maybe the city would do that."

The City of Greater Sudbury plans to build a mutlimillion-dollar pool in Azilda, and has said it would then review its other aging pools in Onaping, Copper Cliff and Gatchell.

Henze said the closure of the Laurentian pool would be "devastating" for the community groups that use it. 

Two million-dollar mansions, an Olympic swimming pool, some prime waterfront property... all owned by Laurentian University, but could soon be on the selling block. Reporter Erik White joined us with a look at Laurentian's real estate portfolio. 11:40

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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