AMHERST – A downtown Amherst development project could be on the verge of collapse and the developer and the town are pointing a finger at Via Rail for dragging its feet.
Amherst Mayor David Kogon is concerned a proposal that would save the historic downtown train station could be slipping away.
“It’s just taking so long to get completed,” Kogon said of the plan to revitalize the century-old VIA Rail station. “The private partner we have for this project has been waiting a long time and he can’t wait forever.”
The station, then part of the Intercolonial Railway, was opened in August 1908. It was closed 104 years later when VIA Rail when it reduced rail service in Maritime Canada.
Following its closure in 2012, the town and VIA Rail held several meetings to discuss the future of the station. During those meetings, the town was told the station couldn’t be turned over to a private enterprise because it was registered as a historic property under the Railroad Heritage Act, but it could be conveyed to a provincial or municipal entity at fair market value provided the entity ensured the historic nature of the building had the same protections as it did under the Railroad Heritage Act.
In an effort to save the station, the town issued a request for proposals to see if anyone in the private sector might be willing to rent the building from the town if it took ownership of the property.
That’s where Jeff Bembridge entered the picture with an ambitious plan to move his Prince Arthur Street pizzeria, Bambino’s, to one part of the station while converting the rest of it into a family restaurant.
The town announced in December 2015 that it had entered into an agreement with Bembridge and Via that would pave the way for the revitalization and preservation of the building.
In its agreement with VIA Rail, the town agreed to purchase the station and the lands surrounding it that are currently owned by the railway, and replace the Railway Heritage designation with a Municipal Heritage Property designation.
The town also agreed to rent a portion of the station back to the railway so its passengers would have a waiting room and access to washroom as well as space for some technology that is needed for railway operations.
VIA Rail also approved the five-year, lease-to-purchase agreement the town has with Bembridge Enterprises, in which Bembridge would rent the building for five years. At the conclusion of the five years, Bembridge would own the property.
The entire deal was contingent on VIA Rail getting approval from Parks Canada, the minister responsible for the railway’s operation and VIA Rails board of directors.
The town declared the station a Municipal Heritage property in March 2017 with the condition that no demolition or substantial alteration in exterior appearance may be undertaken without permission of the town.
In July 2017, Bembridge expressed concern over how long the process was taking. A month later, the town learned that the federal Privy Council had approved the sale of the station to the town.
At the time, Mayor Kogon said he was very pleased to hear a major hurdle had been cleared and pointed out the town was looking forward to working with Bembridge and VIA to hopefully bring this development to reality.
Since then, VIA has requested some minor changes to the agreement, which the town agreed to. Parks Canada also gave its approval to the project in November.
Bembridge continues to be frustrated.
“I’m still interested in the project. The town’s worked well with me, but I can’t wait much longer,” he said. “I’m 55, not 20 anymore. If it’s going to happen it has to happen this year. If it doesn’t, I may have to look elsewhere, may have to take this project to another community. If the federal government really wants to move the country, the province and this community forward then it’s got to move faster on projects like this one.”
Kogon said the town is waiting on VIA to send final paperwork so the agreement can move forward. He said it’s a win-win situation for everyone.
“We get to preserve and revive a historic building, which is going into its third winter without heat,” the mayor said. “However, we are fearful that VIA doesn’t seem to see this as the priority we see it as. This is the only plan we have to save the building. There is no Plan B. We would like VIA to move a little quicker so this important project for the town can move forward.”
Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey said he is surprised to learn the project has hit a roadblock.
“This is a very good project for Amherst and I’m prepared to do what I can to help get this resolved,” Casey said later Thursday. “My understanding is it was approved by Parks Canada and the Privy Council office but is being held up at the Via Rail level. I’m going to reach out to Via to get them to treat this as a priority project because it’s been dragging on long enough already.”