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'It costs the taxpayer $1M per year to do nothing': Province plans to repurpose former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital grounds


The Ontario government is setting aside $100 million to repurpose surplus sites like the former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital grounds.

In the March 26 provincial budget announcement, the Site Preparation Pilot Program was announced.

“It costs the province, costs the taxpayers close to a million dollars a year just to have it sit there and do really nothing,” said Rob Flack, Elgin-Middlesex London MPP. “It's time that these sites such as the St. Thomas hospital lands are repurposed and I would get my vote towards housing and hopefully that's what Infrastructure Ontario decides to do.”

Other than a few Hollywood films that have used the location over the past few years, the site has been vacant for more than a decade.

“It's probably been 13 years since at least one part of it has been used,” said Steve Peters, former MPP and local historian. “There's parts of that hospital that haven't seen any activity since 1984.”

Peters said that the property was once an economic driver for the community.

“The Psychiatric Hospital opened in 1939, and then through during the Second World War, over 60,000 air personnel pass through there,” added Peters. “Over the years, it was a 2,200 bed hospital. So it's been an important part of the local economy and certainly since the hospitals closed, you know, we've just seen the empty buildings and vacant land.”

An aerial view taken in the 1960s of the more than 400-acre property, which was home to the former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital in Central Elgin. (Source: Steve Peters Collection)

Flack said the process is still in the early stages, and they have not even put out a Request For Proposal.

He would ultimately like to see housing on the more than 400-acre property.

“From affordable to attainable right through to a market based housing,” said Flack. “If it gets repurposed, I'm hoping you're not going to have one acre estate lots there. You're going to have some gentle density that's going to accommodate first-time homebuyers, seniors that want to downsize and some affordable [units]. Needs that people wherever you are in housing continuum have the opportunity to have a roof over your head.”

Peters would like to see a showcase development with green opportunities.

“We can take advantage of this property and make it really attractive and viable because we know we're going to need places to grow the with the VW plant coming in,” said Peters. “We're going to need a lot of new residential housing and I hope it's a good mix from low income, subsidized housing to high-end and everything in between.”

Some buildings at the former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital in Central Elgin, seen on April 1, 2024, have been vacant since 1984. (Brent Lale/CTV News London)

The one obstacle is the heritage designation on the main building facing Sunset Drive. Flack said Infrastructure Ontario will determine whether it is kept or demolished.

Despite typically advocating for heritage buildings, Peters thinks it’s time this one is gone.

“I think there's the opportunity to preserve certain parts of the facade of that building, but I don't believe it's functional for the 21st century,” said Peters. “Asbestos, lead paint pipes, you name it. I think there would be a massive amount of environmental remediation that would have to take place and is it worth it?”

Central Elgin Mayor Andrew Sloan agrees.

“I think people want to see it move forward,” said Sloan. “The way it sits, I don't think it's doing anyone any good. I think it's time for us to look at how we could improve [the] housing situation for all the people that will be moving here. More supply of housing makes it perhaps more affordable for those that are working in our community.”

When hearing of the funding set aside for the site, Sloan called it “good news.”

“The numbers talk about 2,000 to 2,500 houses, but again, that's down the road. My hope is the money that's been received or will be received through the government program allows us to future plan for Central Elgin and Elgin County because the tax base would be significant. But there's a lot of investment that has to go in to get us there,” he said.

As Associate Minister of Housing for the province, Flack said he wants these surplus sites developed quickly in municipalities that abut major cities.

“Ontario is the second largest land holder in the province next to the federal government,” said Flack. “We need to repurpose these sites, and we need to get shovels in the ground faster and get roofs over people's heads.” Top Stories

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