BY LINDA MONDOUX
Build it and they will come.
With a stylish residential development set to rise above its new home, Branch 32 of the Royal Canadian Legion is building its own field of dreams in Meaford in a joint venture that will serve as the model for similar renewal projects across Ontario.
“This gets us back into the community and ensures our survival,” says Ron James, the branch’s immediate past president and the man who will oversee the joint project for the Legion with partner BrightStar Corp., a Toronto-based developer whose flagship project is Crates Landing, a four-season lifestyle community coming to the Keswick waterfront.
If all goes without a hitch in Meaford — and none is expected — buyers 55-plus will soon be putting down their cash for the opportunity to live in the modern residential suites to be built as part of a life lease development overlooking the Head River and Beautiful Joe Park. Amenities in the attractive energy-efficient mid-rise building will include a media room, library and heritage room, along with accesss to the Legion’s bistro-style restaurant and hall on the main floor.
Construction on Royal Manor, which will boast a live-in manager, state-of-the-art security features and a mini-bus to take residents on excursions to nearby Owen Sound and Collingwood, is expected to begin in June 2012, with the first residents moving in 14 months later. Prices will range from $139,900 for a one-bedroom studio-style unit of 550 square feet to $290,000 for a 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom plus den suite. The average price will be about $200,000.
“There is a lot of interest in this project, with other Legions calling us and wanting to talk,” says John Blackburn, president of BrightStar, the company whose joint venture in Meaford has been approved by the Legion’s Ontario Command as the template to be used by other branches across the province as they seek creative ways to bring new life to their aging properties.
“We are tying in the Legion’s objectives of giving back to the community and helping veterans and their families,” Blackburn tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to provide safety and companionship for the residents, and also cash flow for the Legion through the bar and restaurant.”
News of the Royal Manor project has brought a new excitement to Meaford, the Georgian Bay community that lost its long-time Legion storefront two years ago when the aging Branch 32 building at 1 Legion St. was closed down because the Legion couldn’t afford to repair a broken furnace and sewer pipes. “We retained our charter, and our meetings were moved to the military base,” says James, whose wife, Sheila, is the current president. “But basically, the Legion runs out of our house.”
With no permanent home and no way to make money to help the community, it was obvious action was needed. The original plan was to develop affordable rental housing on the site, subject to obtaining government grants. With too many organizations lined up for limited cash, that plan died. The search was on for a bolder idea.
'We're property rich, but cash poor'
“We knew we had to do something if we were going to survive,” James tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “You could say Legions are like the Catholic Church — we’re property rich but cash poor.”
The first step in saving the Branch 32 charter was meeting with the Legion’s Ontario Command. “We had to give a strong case that we want to survive,” recalls James. With that message heard loud and clear, the Meaford branch was directed to BrightStar to come up with a plan. “We had to find a different way,” adds James. “You can’t survive on selling cold beer anymore.”
Within 18 months of that first meeting, a joint venture agreement was hammered out and given the blessing of Ontario Command.
“We have a winner here,” says James, who is already thinking about community events — such as special dinners and wine and cheese soirées — that will bring new life and funds into the Legion’s new home in Royal Manor, which will be built on the prized Legion Street site once the old building is torn down. The Legion’s new banquet hall will be for lease, and is expected to be the new go-to spot for weddings and large parties, as Meaford has a shortage of such space.
Both James and Blackburn are confident Royal Manor’s suites will be filled up in no time — reservations are being taken online now at www.royalmanor.ca
and a sales office will open in downtown Meaford in early 2012 — with residents expected to come from as far away as Toronto and Kitchener in search of the carefree waterfront lifestyle on offer.
“We’re lucky with our location,” says James. “We’re on the Head River and just a two-minute walk from the post office, the bank, the shops ... and you can walk to our beautiful harbour on the Bay.”
For cash-strapped Legions across Ontario, many of which are in the same boat as the Meaford branch — the owner of aging properties with poor cash flow as a result of dwindling membership — the residence/Legion hall combo is a true lifesaver. Part of why Ontario Command wants to use the Meaford project as a template for other branches to follow is that there are no upfront costs to pay.
Under the joint venture agreement, BrightStar foots the bill for all upfront costs, including research to determine what type of development is best suited for a site; design; taking it through the municipal planning process; marketing; pre-sales; and arranging bank financing for construction. The company gets paid a set fee once the cash starts coming in for the residential units.
Win-win for Legion and purchasers
In the end, the Meaford Legion will own a brand new building free and clear without debt, complete with bistro, banquet hall and residences. At the same time, it gains the ability to generate cash flow to continue its community work, all while providing safe, carefree homes to people 55-plus at prices that are cheaper than similar condo-style suites in private developments.
Blackburn estimates that a similar two-bedroom plus den suite that would cost a resident $200,000 at Royal Manor would carry a price tag of about $250,000 if it were located in a private condo building. That’s because the Legion already owned its property, thereby eliminating land costs from the development, and is not building in a profit because Royal Manor will be owned and operated as a non-profit development under a life lease arrangement.
The major difference between a life lease and a condominium is that the title to life lease units remains with the sponsoring organization — in this case the Meaford Legion — and not the purchaser, who will sign a lease for 49 years and 11 months (the maximum allowed by Ontario law without paying a land transfer tax). But don’t be fooled by the term “lease,” as it is not the same as paying rent. Because the entire development is being financed by the equity provided by incoming residents, they will either pay for their unit in cash or carry a mortgage. Along with the lump-sum payment, purchasers will be charged a monthly maintenance fee to cover such things as amenities, management, snow-clearing etc. These will generally be lower than condo fees in a similar building, because Royal Manor is a non-profit.
Because the Legion has a sterling reputation in the community, there is expected to be a waiting list for units once they are all filled up. That’s good news, because residents won’t have to worry about finding a purchaser for their unit when they want to move. In fact, the Legion will act as your agent and market and sell the unit for you at market value, handing you the cash minus a five-per-cent fee for the service (similar to a real estate agent). The new purchaser would sign a new lease of 49 years and 11 months.
Already, the Legion in the Lake Ontario community of Port Dalhousie is planning to move ahead with a life lease development on its branch site, and is working with BrightStar using the Meaford model.
For James, redeveloping the Legion’s own property is the smart way to go. “You could sell your property for $1 million, downsize and rent, but then what happens when the money runs out? This way, we know we’ll be around for a long, long time. We can continue to give to the community and help our veterans and their families.”
To ensure success from the start, James says purchasers at the four-storey Royal Manor will automatically become Legion members for the first year as an incentive to “come down and check us out.”
Build it and they will come. For the Legion and the residents, it’s a win-win situation.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — November 2011