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Barrie's delay in widening Essa leaves developer out in the cold

Delaying widening Essa Road will stall a development that will boost the housing supply and offer more affordable options, says developer
Road construction closure shutterstock
Stock photo

As it approved a $112-million capital spending plan, Barrie left Essa Road – and a major mixed-use development – out in the cold.

Owners of the former Barrie Raceway and fairgrounds, Osmington Inc. appealed to Barrie council to get the Essa Road widening back on the city’s agenda.

Barrie, however, is continuing to delay widening Essa Road between Anne Street and Hwy. 400.

And that’s risking Osmington’s newest proposal – a mix of retail and residential on the 60-acre site that features highway frontage and serves as a gateway to the city’s core from Hwy. 400, said the company’s development vice-president Brad Keast.

“The site itself is a little underwhelming. It has a great location and great visibility. We have the potential to develop this into an attractive gateway,” Keast told city councillors.

Widening Essa Road and improving traffic flow in the area by adding turning lanes and a signalizing intersection between Anne Street and the highway, most likely near the curling club are key to selling the site to potential tenants, said Keast.

Keast has already had to go back to the drawing board a few times. In 2008, the company proposed a 400,000 square-foot equestrian-themed shopping centre, but the economy collapsed. A few years later, it worked with Laurentian University to design a campus; however, as Barrie had two proposals, one for Laurentian and the other for Lakehead University and Georgian College, the province did not approve any additional student spaces in the city.

Now Osmington is planning 130,000 square feet of retail and 525 homes in a medium-density plan. Some would be affordable and the increased supply would also dampen price increases, said Keast.

Getting the project going would not only create an attractive, vibrant gateway to the city, but it would generate $23 million in development charges and $3 million a year in taxes, as well as create 1,400 temporary construction jobs and 250 permanent ones.  

The roadwork needs to happen to get interested tenants to sign, he told council.

“For a number of years, there has not been a lot of interest in the site. Now there is,” he said. “We want to make sure there is road capacity for the tenants,” he said, as well as their customers from the day they open.

Having them to endure road construction as they get their businesses growing is already dampening interest, he said.

He added his company helped the city with road planning work already by providing money for design.

“We’ve been partners up until now. We’re allowing the site to be used for staging for utility work. We provide land for the (additional) lane free of charge,” said Keast.

Barrie staff, however, cited tight finances as well as unspecified technical reasons for the continuing delay on the project that went to the public for input in 2013.

“The capital plan we have put forward balances affordability and meets renewal and growth needs,” said city treasurer Craig Millar. “Unfortunately the city doesn’t have a lot of reserves.”