A changing Legion looks to unlock its land value

Meaford, Ont. — Special to The Globe and Mail

A rendering of Royal Manor, a condominium-like development on property owned by the Royal Canadian Legion in Meaford, Ont. (BrightStar Corp./BrightStar Corp.)

Across Canada, branches of the Royal Canadian Legion face falling membership and tightening budgets. But in the Georgian Bay town of Meaford, plans to create more housing for the age 55-plus crowd is giving the local branch a new chance to thrive.

They had to shut Meaford's old Legion building down a couple of years ago because the organization couldn't afford to pay for necessary repairs. But it will soon open again – in a new building – thanks to an innovative plan to build Royal Manor, a condominium-like development on the Legion's property that's close to the town's business district, green space and waterfront.

Story continues below ad

“We knew we had to do something if we were going to survive,” says former Meaford Legion branch president Ron James. “We were property rich, but cash poor.”

John Blackburn, president of Toronto-based BrightStar Corp., is a Legion member himself and, realizing the pressure the organization is under to remain healthy, approached the organization's Ontario Command with a proposal: He would partner with local legion branches to provide housing for seniors under the life-lease model. BrightStar would pay all the upfront costs. The legions would provide the property and in return could use space in the new buildings, and perhaps even gain a few new members.

“I approached this from the perspective of, ‘is this a place I would want to live?'” Mr. Blackburn says. “And when we had the design for Meaford ready, my answer was, ‘yes, I certainly would live there.'” Mr. Blackburn says as people age and find their homes too much to cope with, often they are reluctant to sell and move into a hotel-style residence because of the expense. With monthly fees of $3,000 to $5,000, their money can vanish quickly, he says.

“Let's face it,” he says, “a lot of seniors don't want to put out that money. They'd rather leave it to their children.”

With life-lease, buyers still own an asset which they can sell if the day comes that they want to move to a facility that offers some form of care. Or, he says, when that day arrives they can even stay in their life-lease residence and purchase optional packages that offer meal plans, prescription drug dispensing, personal care and housekeeping.

Life lease is more like condominium ownership than it is a “lease.” The difference is that title to the units remains with the sponsoring organization – in this case the Meaford Legion. The buyer signs a lease for 49 years and 11 months, the maximum allowed under Ontario law to avoid paying land transfer tax. Owners pay a monthly fee to cover amenities, management and maintenance, just as they would in a condo.

Should a life-lease owner decide to sell, the Legion receives five per cent of the sale price to cover costs and find a buyer – they anticipate there'll be a waiting list – and the seller keeps the rest, including any increase in value.

Mr. Blackburn says with 40 per cent of the suites already spoken for, construction on Royal Manor should commence this summer and residents could begin to move in 14 months later. BrightStar has partnered with a financial institution, which will offer financing options. Meanwhile other legions have been beating a path to Mr. Blackburn's door. The model has been endorsed by the Legion's Ontario Command and the Port Dalhousie branch, which also faces rising costs and falling membership, is eager to join, says first vice-president Brian Bowman.

“We can't wait until they get the shovel in the ground up in Meaford,” Mr. Bowman says. “Our board has approved the idea and would love to proceed.”

Mr. Bowman adds that a complication they need to deal with first is that the City of St. Catharines, where Port Dalhousie is located, is currently studying an overall development plan for the old port area.

Mr. Blackburn says the next project could be with the Polish Legion branch in downtown St. Catharines. There have also been discussions with Legions from Goderich, Owen Sound and Wiarton and with 400 branches across the province, he believes BrightStar will soon be busy planning new projects based on Meaford, with adjustments in façades and number of suites. Port Dalhousie, for instance, located at the north end of the Old Welland Canal, could sport a nautical theme.

Royal Manor offers 13 unit models ranging from one bedroom to two bedrooms plus den, from 550 to 1,100 square feet, with patios or balconies. Prices range from about $150,000 to $300,000. Units in the four-storey building are aimed at the needs of seniors, with lower countertops, walk-in bathtub/showers, lower light switches and 24-hour, on-site staff. Common facilities will include a media room, library and banquet room and residents will have access to the Legion's bistro-style restaurant.

Royal Manor will be operated by the Legion through a not-for-profit corporation.

BrightStar is also throwing in a one-year membership to the Legion and Mr. Blackburn hopes many will sign up afterward.

Mr. Blackburn, whose BrightStar is building Crates Landing, a four-season lifestyle community on the Keswick waterfront, likes the idea of partnering with the Legion, a trusted entity in small towns right across the country. “We don't want to come across as the big-city developers,” he says. “We plan to use local construction as much as possible.”

He says many smaller communities need this type of facility for those 55-plus because it's these places where people go to retire after leaving their farms and homes in under-serviced rural areas.

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

Topics: