-by Anne Finlay-Stewart

Like many of us, Ron Pirie first came to Owen Sound because he had a friend here. The developer of "The Sydenham" condominium project had visited local lawyer Doug Grace regularly over the years, and came to feel at home in our city. After building an international market research firm in the GTA, Pirie was ready to leave a physical legacy. The property for sale on the east side of the 9th Avenue bridge presented him with an opportunity to create "something significant in a landmark location in a great community".

"Owen Sound has been recognized as a top retirement community", Pirie said in an interview in his 8th Street sales office, "and I felt that the people who lived in its beautiful old homes would want to downsize into something of unique quality and style."

The city council and former Mayor Deb Haswell were supportive from the start –they could see this project has the potential to revitalize the river and increase tax revenue. More people living downtown will create a healthy community - more walkable, more comfortable. The demand for services will increase, giving business owners a reason to locate downtown.

The original plans included using a building on First Avenue East that looked like it had great potential, but proved to be beyond repair. The facade of the 9th Street building too was structurally unsound, and would have crumbled with the vibration of the pile-driving. Retail vacancies on 2nd Ave. dissuaded Pirie from his first thoughts of putting some commercial space on the main floor, so The Sydenham will all be devoted to the residents of the 32 units, complete with river access, a guest suite, gym and spa.Sydenham-full

When it is complete, the building will be an attractive addition to the downtown riverfront, and some historic elements of Owen Sound have been incorporated into the new plans. Pirie acquired the oak from the organ chancel of the former Knox United Church at 9th Street East and 4th Avenue in exchange for a donation towards its repurposing into the Harmony Centre. The wood will re-appear in the foyer and other common areas of The Sydenham.

So the coffee-shop question has been - "What's taking so long?" Pirie says the honest answer is that they overestimated their ability to meet the concerns of the Conservation Authority, who have to sign off on any building plan in its watershed. Ultimately there was a complete re-design which involved moving the amenities from the basement to a new seventh floor and essentially restarting the planning process. From the city, both staff and politicians, Pirie has had access, openness and support. "I just have to call the planning department, and I get answers right away." The community has been somewhat less generous. Each delay brought comments of "never gonna happen" and "I told you so". That kind of negativism about downtown can be self-fulfilling, Pirie warned. "You get what you talk about," he said, "and I am indebted to those people who supported the idea and talked it up from the beginning – Steve Furness, Pam Coulter, Deb Haswell, Jan Chamberlain."

The current owners are still excited and want the building to happen. They are retired or pre-retired, plus a few young professionals – a little more than a third are from "away" - Toronto, Guelph and Montreal, and the rest are local-ish. A mix of local and southwestern Ontario contractors are committed to finishing the project, and those interested in purchasing one of the ten remaining units can expect to move in sometime in the last half of 2016.

Now that Pirie has met more people and has a real sense of the community, he has plans for more projects in Owen Sound. Stand by for details, but count on them to be exciting. After all, Ron Pirie himself has a unit in The Sydenham.  He has a stake in the future of his new home.



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