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The Globe and Mail

Few offers for Canada’s biggest fixer-upper

Maybe it's the location, the price tag or the fact that it's not quite finished. Whatever the reason, selling Canada's largest house has not been easy.

The 65,000-square-foot property is in Haileybury, Ont., about 140 kilometres north of North Bay, Ont., on the shores of Lake Temiskaming. It includes an art gallery, office area, swimming pool, squash court, two elevators, a giant hot tub, a small gym, a boathouse and 43 acres of land. But many rooms aren't finished and a new owner will have to sink in as much as $1-million to make it livable.

The house, about the same size as Bill Gates' mansion near Seattle and about 10,000 square feet bigger than the White House, has been on the multiple listing service for about a year at an asking price of $25-million. But there haven't been any decent offers.

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Now the firm trying to unload it plans to run ads in several newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, in an attempt to drum up interest. "The Haileybury Lakeside complex is a luxury property with potential to become a landmark residence and office," according to the offering material put together by Ernst & Young Inc., a court-appointed monitor handling the sale. Potential bidders have until June 24 to submit an offer, with a 15-per-cent deposit.

"It's a unique asset and it's a high-cost asset, so there's clearly going to be limited buyers for it," said Alex Morrison, a senior vice-president at Ernst & Young. When asked whether he has ever seen a house that big, Mr. Morrison said: "I never have. It's quite an impressive building when you go up and see it."

The vacant complex is one of the last remaining assets of Englehart, Ont.-based Grant Forest Products Inc., once one of Canada's largest building products companies. And it stands as a sad reminder of the company's ill fortune and bad timing.

Founded in 1980 by Peter Grant, the family-owned business expanded rapidly as the housing bubble grew in the United States. At its peak in 2004, Grant operated six mills – two in Ontario, one in Alberta and two in South Carolina – and was North America's third-largest maker of oriented strand board (OSB), a product similar to plywood that's used to build walls, floors and roofs.

The success prompted Mr. Grant to branch out. He started building a golf course in nearby Earlton, Ont., acquired a 65-foot yacht made partly made out of OSB, and snapped up acres of land around Timmins.

In 2005 he started work on the Haileybury house, hoping to use it as an office complex, living quarters and a showcase for Grant products. The monster-home dwarfs everything else in the area and was supposed to come complete with a small golf course in the surrounding acreage.

By 2007, Mr. Grant's fortunes turned. The housing market in the United States began to collapse, dragging down OSB prices and forcing Grant to cut production. Within two years, OSB prices had fallen by two-thirds and Grant's sales had dropped from $500-million to $184-million. Even worse, the downturn came just after the company had launched a costly expansion project at two mills.

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The company tried to keep going but by June, 2009, it succumbed and filed for court protection from creditors, citing nearly $600-million in debt. The mills have since been sold by the monitor, Ernst & Young, and all remaining assets are up for sale.

Mr. Grant abandoned the Haileybury project in 2008, leaving a partly finished relic. If he could have hung on just a bit longer, the company might have survived. By 2010, the housing market began to turn around and China started snapping up Canadian forest products. Prices for OSB jumped 34 per cent last year and Toronto-based Norbord Inc., one of the largest OSB makers still standing, reported a profit for the first time in four years. Even more telling, Atlanta-based giant Georgia-Pacific, which bought three of Grant's mills, recently announced that it is close to reopening the mills to take advantage of the upturn in the market.

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