Retirement community plan goes off rails

By Ian McCallum, Times-Journal Staff
Friday March 11, 2005

“We tried every avenue we could and we just can’t do it.”

Five months after hosting an open house to preview their vision of an “exclusive independent retirement community” on the grounds of Alma College, the owners of the former school for girls are turning their backs on the project and putting the 4.4 hectare (10.9 acre) site back up for sale.

“We had a meeting (Wednesday),” Jill Zubick, of Alma Heritage Estates, told the Times-Journal. “We tried to do Alma and it’s not happening. So now we’re selling it. It’s formally up for sale.”

Alma Heritage Estates has owned the property on Moore Street since 1998 and two years ago approached St. Thomas council with a proposal to partner with the city to locate a new Valleyview Home for the Aged on the property. When the city balked at the financial partnership, Brian Squires, of Alma Heritage Estates, announced he would press ahead with his vision of constructing 66 retirement suites in the main building which dates to 1877. At his open house in October, Squires told several dozen invited guests, “we’re doing what we set out to do, save the building.”

But Squires contacted the T-J on Thursday to announce his resignation from Alma Heritage Estates. “Kathy (Brian’s wife) and I have officially resigned from the company as of (Wednesday) and Jill Zubick is now the company spokesperson.” Zubick confirmed Squires is no longer involved in the project, and the property is now “formally for sale.”

“Brian needs to get on,” explained Zubick from her home in London, Ont. “He’s put a lot of time into it and he needs to go on and find his own work and that’s what he’s doing. Brian put everything he had into it. But there’s a point where you say you can’t do anymore.”

Last fall Squires opened a presentation office, featuring several model suites, in the former music building with the hope of an official sales launch this spring. Zubick would not say how much money Alma Heritage Estates invested in the retirement community project other than to note, “it’s a lot.” She added the seniors retirement community was “a dream” for Alma Heritage Estates. “We’re so devastated. We have put so much into it. So much time and all of our resources and it’s not happening. We’re very sad about it. It was a dream and part of our heart and now we’re losing it. It’s very sad. “There’s a lot of emotion. We thought we could do this and we’re letting a lot of people down.”

News that Alma College, which officially closed as a school in 1994, once again faces an uncertain future caught Mayor Jeff Kohler by surprise. “I didn’t know it was up for sale,” said Kohler. “Council would have liked to have seen the project completed.” Zubick said there has been “some interest” in the property, but did not elaborate. London, Ont., developer Shmuel Farhi, who at one time sought to purchase the historically designated building, called the turn of events “a shame.”

“The buildings are going to fall. It’s a shame and a crime. I wanted to buy the building in 1988 but the city didn’t want to deal with me.” Farhi told the Times-Journal, “I’m not interested in it now.”

Zubick indicated she is not interested in purchasing any other city properties at this time. “We’re still reeling. We’re not out of it yet, we’re still paying money. Right now we’re grieving.”