City tried to buy vacant riverfront land, but Ford wants to sell it in a package deal

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After trying in vain to buy riverfront land from Ford Motor Company — which is taking an all-or-nothing approach to selling three sites — the city is hoping to strike a deal with the future buyer.

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Mayor Drew Dilkens said the city has repeatedly offered to buy the vacant land at the foot of Drouillard Road in hopes of creating a public space. But Ford will only sell it as a package deal. So officials are trying a different tack.

“We have been approached by no less than four different bid teams who are participating and putting bids,” said Dilkens. “Ideally, we’d love to make a deal with a future owner to take all or part of the waterfront parcels, and work with that owner to properly zone and remediate the industrial site.”

Ford officials could not be reached for comment after several attempts this week.

The company put its Windsor Engine Plant, powerhouse property and vacant waterfront land up for sale in September. The asking price hasn’t been revealed. The collection of properties totals about 82 acres, according to the real estate listing. City records show the waterfront land is about 22 acres.

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Larry Horwitz, owner of the Water's Edge Event Center at Riverside Drive and Drouillard Road, shown on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 is concerned about the plans for the riverfront property across from his business.
Larry Horwitz, owner of the Water’s Edge Event Center at Riverside Drive and Drouillard Road, shown on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 is concerned about the plans for the riverfront property across from his business. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Dilkens said the company initially listed just the engine plant off Drouillard Road for sale. Ford later contacted city officials, noting their ongoing interest in the waterfront land, to inform them the company is selling the three parcels together. The city isn’t interested in the other sites, he said.

“As a city corporation we wouldn’t expose municipal taxpayers to buying a brownfield industrial site that is closed,” said Dilkens. “It’s not on the waterfront and there’s probably a whole host of environmental issues there that stem from its operation that goes back a long, long time.”

Larry Horwitz, who owns Water’s Edge Event Center on Riverside Drive across from the land, is planning a social media and lobbying campaign to ensure officials do what it takes to acquire the waterfront property.

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“Citizens have to be aware and start lobbying the government — provincial, federal and municipal — to look at this area and understand how important and beneficial it is to be part of the renaissance of Ford City and Walkerville,” said Horwitz. “And how important it is to have that connectivity, that walkable area and that parkland and waterfront area.”

With the city not in the running to buy the land, Horwitz is worried the property might remain gated off and unused. Or even worse, that it might revert to some kind of industrial use.

“I don’t like the possibility of once again having piles of sand or concrete,” he said. “I think it would badly ruin the look of the waterfront and the concept of what Windsor is looking for and the things they envision.”

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Dilkens said that’s unlikely to happen.

“It’s not just land to the waterfront,” he said. “It’s being supported by a pillar base, so you couldn’t have a heavy structure there. You could not have a multi-storey structure on at least part of that land. So I think people as they get through the due diligence are recognizing what kind of environmental issues exist, what kind of opportunities exist. And from an economic perspective as a builder, I think people are saying the waterfront isn’t necessarily the most attractive piece of this.”

While the requirement for a package deal might dissuade certain investors, there has been some surprise the properties haven’t sold on the merits of the other industrial sites.

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“There’s not a lot of property out there, especially commercial buildings that size,” said Unifor Local 200 president John D’Agnolo. “It could be a massive warehouse. It has a train that goes directly into the plant. It has all the docks where you can ship. Trucks can go from there. It’s perfect. But nothing yet.”

When a buyer does appear, whoever it is, Dilkens said the city will work with them to take the waterfront land off their hands.

“We’re actively engaged with all these parties,” he said of the four known bidders. “There are probably more who are submitting bids that we aren’t aware of. But we will work with anybody.”

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