Story  by Matthew Van DongenSt. Catharines Standard

Anthony Continelli is part developer, part surgeon. His condo project, a conversion of the old Red Cross building on Merritt Street, is part of a dramatic facelift for Merritton. The abandoned building will change into 27 units in a three-storey complex overlooking the city from on top of the escarpment. Derelict commercial and industrial buildings all over the community are getting similar makeovers. The operations can be expensive – but the city is giving developers like Continelli cash incentives to pull out the scalpel.

These include tax incentives and construction and facade improvement grants in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“It definitely helped me make my decision to go ahead,” said Continelli, who wants seniors and empty-nesters to begin moving into the condos next fall.

“And it definitely entices the neighbours to improve their own properties, too.”

The Community Improvement Plan was introduced in 2004 to help revitalize abandoned properties in the downtown, Queenston/Hartzel Road area and Merritton.

It was a slam dunk with developers – but not necessarily with city councillors.  Last year, council came close to slashing the $500,000 program’s budget by half.

One councillor introduced a motion to scrap the incentives program altogether, arguing taxpayers shouldn’t pay to pad developers pockets.

This years council ignored a staff recommendation to boost the budget.  After the Nov. 13 election, Continelli hopes a new council will see things differently – program funding is up for review again next year.

“It’s not just one party that benefits,” he said. “The city benefits too.  The residents who move in benefit.  The neighbours benefit when their property values increase.” Under the CIP, as Continelli’s property tax assessment climbs, the city will refund him a portion of the increase over several years.The refund will help offset construction costs and make condo prices “more reasonable,” Continelli said.

The program has kick-started 82 residential units in Merritton in the last two years, said city planner Paul Chapman. Would developers be so willing to take a risk without the program? “I don’t think so,” Continelli said. Harry Ganatra agrees.

“It would been very difficult for me to go ahead, otherwise,” said Ganatra, who plans to turn an old packing plant  on Canterbury Drive into 64 new residential units. As a taxpayer, Merritton resident Bob Flynn is willing to pay for that growth – as long as councillors make good planning a priority. “The face of Merritton is going to change radically.  We all know it,” said the local Lions Club president.

“You’re either going to build in west St. Catharines or you’re going to rebuild Merritton.”

Using incentives to promote development is fine, said Flynn, But development can’t come at the expense of Merritton’s unique identity.

Aspiring councillors forget that at their peril, he said.

“You talk to almost anyone who lives here, they’re Merrittonians first,” he said. That’s why Flynn likes the CIP’s potential for restoring or reusing old buildings.

“New construction is inevitable, but you have to maintain the flavour of the past.” he said.