Chris Mayne, the Chair of the Board of Management for Cassellholme had promised a "snow-turning" ceremony but with construction getting underway and the event pushed into March, the dignitaries upgraded instead to shovels and a pile of dirt.
Common themes emerged among the speakers, Friday, a touch of a sense of accomplishment, to be sure, but also an overwhelming feeling of relief that this enormously important redevelopment would finally see not only the ceremonial shovels in the ground but the heavy equipment on the property.
MPP Vic Fedeli — who has a documented affinity for piloting heavy machinery — seemed disappointed he would not have the chance to take the controls of the excavator local company Canor has on-site for early work on the project.
"Residents of this home will have the quality of care they deserve," said Fedeli. "Everybody is excited. The significance of this equipment shows that it actually is happening."
Fedeli has been hailed as instrumental in getting the project back on its feet and over the finish line. When the redevelopment talk began in earnest 14 years ago, Nipissing MPP Fedeli was North Bay Mayor Fedeli.
"I promised I would make sure this project got the support of the provincial government, the funding it needed, and the necessary approvals to go forward," said Fedeli. "I am thrilled to be here today for this sod-turning ceremony and I congratulate all the partners involved. Ontario has made a big commitment to this project, this is a great day for everyone in Nipissing."
Mayne and Cassellholme CEO Jamie Lowery both expressed gratitude to Fedeli for working tirelessly with them, and on Cassellholme’s behalf, to keep the project front and centre at Queen’s Park.
After several years of discussions and negotiations, the nine municipal partners, the province of Ontario and Cassellholme finalized project details late last year.
Bonfield Mayor Randy McLaren represented the municipalities and spoke Friday. The City of North Bay was represented by several councillors but Mayor Al McDonald attended a previously scheduled engagement. McLaren acknowledged the often difficult process and all the talks and manoeuvres that led to the eventual agreement. In recent years, McLaren often publicly stated he was in favour of moving the development forward despite the reluctance of the partners.
"Our redevelopment means replacing the current building, originally constructed in 1961, with a state-of-the-art 264-bed facility with new special needs units and Indigenous beds," said Lowery. "This extra capacity is welcomed to meet the growing need for seniors services, however, more and diverse services are needed."
Following construction, Cassellholme will have an additional 24 beds, including the 16 beds for Indigenous residents and an additional eight beds for the special needs units.
Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod spoke of the importance of elders — especially female elders in their role as knowledge keepers — to the NFN community.
"We place our elders in the highest regard," he said. "We want to take of our community in our territory and this is one step toward that."
McLeod also thanked Fedeli "for continuing to work with us and understanding our needs. Relationships are a funny thing, we often have to remind each other of our different points of view and our perspectives on things. But, at the end of the day, in a good relationship, we get through those and we move on and we do good things together."
Officials say the new facility will meet or exceed current provincial long-term care requirements and meet more rigid infectious disease protocols. New rooms will have the additional square footage to meet personal space requirements needed for social distancing. Added community, treatment and recreational space will mean residents, visitors and the community will be able to interact safely and comfortably.
Mayne said there will be an increase in activity by Percon Construction Inc. and its subcontractors this spring. The work will continue for an estimated four-and-a-half years, into 2026.
The building plan calls for the work to be done in phases so that the new resident space is built and occupied before the demolition and removal of the current building space. Each new section of the building will replace an existing section of the current building.
The first phase of the project will begin in the coming weeks and involves the removal of a walkway connecting Cassellholme with Castle Arms One to allow access to an interior courtyard to be converted for parking.
Percon Contracting Inc. Vice President Massimo Perricone said, "We are extremely excited to be working with the Cassellholme team and their municipal partners on this very important project. They have a vision that includes a continuum of care for seniors and vulnerable citizens. This is a model being embraced for long-term care and the Percon team is proud to be involved."
Despite the project's timeline, a significant number of new resident rooms will be occupied two years from now when the first section of the build is completed.
"By building on Cassellholme’s existing site, we will develop the first phase, populate that section with residents, decommission the section of the old building no longer occupied and begin construction on that footprint of the remaining part of the new build," advised Perricone.
The final result will be a campus for long-term and continuing care with the current north tower of the existing building repurposed for seniors' services, geriatric clinics, community programming and possibly assisted living.
"We have taken the long view with this project," observed Mayne. "We know from area demographics, seniors' services will have to expand to meet future needs and we believe Cassellholme has a significant role to play in the delivery of those services."