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Titanic-era ship anchors port redevelopment

The SS Keewatin came home to Canada this summer, more than 100 years after it began steaming across the Great Lakes. Launched on July 6, 1907, at the height of the Edwardian era, it is the last surviving Canadian Pacific wooden cabin steamship.

charla jones The Globe and Mail

Talk about serendipity. Five years ago, Eric Conroy called Skyline International Development president Gil Blutrich to ask whether he'd like to buy a scale model and an oil painting of the SS Keewatin.

When Mr. Conroy took his first job as a waiter aboard the Keewatin, little did he know that in his retirement he would find a job working to restore and promote the Titanic-era ship.

When Mr. Conroy delivered the items to Skyline's Toronto offices, Mr. Blutrich was startled to discover the painting he'd purchased, sight unseen, was the same image he'd saved as his cellphone wallpaper three months earlier, while researching the history of the Keewatin online.

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Both fate and luck seem to be smiling on the Keewatin, the only surviving ship in Canadian Pacific Railway's Great Lakes Steamship fleet. From 1907 to 1966, the Keewatin ferried new immigrants, tourists, grain and other goods from CPR's harbours  - first from Owen Sound, Ont. - and then from Port McNicoll, Ont., through the waters of Georgian Bay.

The Keewatin has twice been saved from the scrapper, thanks to American businessman Rolland J. Peterson, who purchased it in 1967 for $40,000 and towed it to his marina in Douglas, Mich., and again in 2011 when his son, Matt, told a newspaper that if it were up to him, he'd sell the ship for scrap.

Mr. Blutrich – a real estate developer who specializes in repositioning landmark properties, such as Ontario's Deerhurst and Horseshoe resorts, as residential lifestyle communities – was keen to make the Keewatin the focal point of his new Port McNicoll Resort Village, a 1,125-acre master planned destination community.

Skyline spent millions to buy the ship, dredge a mile-long path out of the silt-choked Kalamazoo River, and tow it back to Port McNicoll on June 23.

Port McNicoll is a gateway to Ontario's cottage country. Because the town is only about a 90-minute drive north of Toronto, Skyline is marketing its new project to families, condo dwellers and downsizing baby boomers who want to own a nearby, low-maintenance vacation home. "This area is heaven for boaters," Mr. Blutrich enthused.

"I think what Gil's doing is certainly in line with what the Ministry of Tourism would like to see happening with resorts and investment going into new tourism product in Ontario. There hasn't been a lot of that," said Lyle Hall, managing director of HLT Advisory Inc. In 2008, his Toronto consulting firm analyzed Ontario's tourism investment climate as part of a study by former finance minister Greg Sorbara.

"Understand that Gil's not doing it out of the kindness of his heart," Mr. Hall continued. "He's a real estate developer. I think how he bought Deerhurst and raised some capital through sales of the initial phase [of its redevelopment] is very smart, very strategic."

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Unlike Deerhurst, Port McNicoll is entirely new construction on a brownfield site that includes 11 kilometres of shoreline. Skyline has already removed contaminated soil and taken down a massive grain elevator. Plans call for a marina, yacht club, 160-room hotel, English gardens, an Edwardian-era replica train station, two restaurants, and about 2,000 homes, townhomes and condo units.

While the first phase – 60 units including 39 waterfront lots – sold out, the entire project is running about two years behind schedule because of approval delays for phase two, Mr. Blutrich said. "We're dealing with 21 different governmental agencies … there are flood issues because it's a waterfront …then there are the environmentalists. … It's expensive and time consuming to get approvals," he explained.

This doesn't surprise Glenn Miller, vice-president, education and research for the Canadian Urban Institute. He said approvals for servicing environmentally sensitive lands can sometimes be a "procedural nightmare."

Mr. Blutrich is taking it in stride and said the project will grow organically. "We have one of the largest waterfront development projects in Ontario with basically zero debt. So, we're not under pressure. When the market is there, we will move. When it slows down, we will slow down. We're here for the long term," he said.

Still, it takes cash, a strong vision and a community that's willing to host your development dreams, Mr. Miller continued. "When you engage with a community, you have to do so in a genuine way."

That's where Mr. Conroy and the Keewatin come in. Mr. Conroy is in charge of getting the Keewatin shipshape. He has recruited dozens of local volunteers to clean and repair the ship. And he plans to make the Keewatin financially self-sufficient by opening it for tours, turning its cargo deck into a rentable community space, and operating the elegant first-class dining room as a restaurant and special event venue.

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Mr. Conroy is a natural storyteller who delights in reminiscing about the people he met while working as a teenaged waiter in 1963 and 64. The ship, today, is a floating time capsule, circa 1907. Perfectly preserved are 100 hand-painted Italian glass windows, the barber shop, a ballroom and a ladies smoking lounge. The ship is still decorated with the carpeting, curtains and period furniture from a makeover it received in 1951. But Mr. Conroy has discovered dozens of Edwardian chamber pots, Canadian Pacific-branded tableware (including sterling silver flatware, vases and platters), and boxes of never-used items such as British-made teapots.

"This is kind of equivalent to finding a '57 Chevy convertible that's hardly ever been driven," he said.

Mr. Conroy, 67, spent his working years in business, advertising and public relations. He'd been retired for only a month when Mr. Blutrich asked him to help bring the Keewatin back home.

"It was like someone said, 'Eric, we're going to take everything you've done in your life, and give you a job for the rest of your life.' This is where I started. Now I can finish it."

Keewatin facts

• The Keewatin is 106 metres long and 14 metres wide.

• The 3,800-ton vessel carried 288 passengers with a crew of 86.

• Of Keewatin's 107 cabins, only seven had ensuite bathrooms.

• Five years older than the Titanic, Keewatin was outfitted with many of the same design and construction features including a grand staircase, quadruple expansion steam engine and "Scotch" boilers.

Editors' note: This is a corrected version stating that Owen Sound, Ont., was the SS Keewatin's first Great Lakes home base.

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