Lambton County approves more money for cash-strapped research park

With occupancy down and cash running out, Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park has won more funding from Lambton County council.

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With occupancy down and cash running out, Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park has won more funding from Lambton County council.

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“We’re very grateful . . . for their continued support,” said park executive director Katherine Albion after council approved $675,000 this week for the County of Lambton Community Development Corp. (CLCDC) that runs the park.

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Park officials, estimating they’d run out of cash in four months, had asked for double that amount.

But council wanted more details of of a plan to boost occupancy to pre-pandemic levels before committing the full amount.

“I need a much better business plan with some more financials in there,” Dawn-Euphemia Township Mayor Al Broad said of the estimated 18- to 36-month plan to get occupancy back up to about 95 per cent.

Recent occupancy has been closer to 66 per cent, after more companies started working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Albion said.

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There are regular inquiries about leasing space, she said. “However we do require time to transition from this inquiry stage to securing these leads as new tenants.”

The park also has been considering converting 50,000 sq. ft. (4,645 sq. m) of vacant office space to lab space.

Lambton recently provided a $640,000 grant to help balance the park’s books, said Larry Palarchio. county finance and facilities general manager.

Expenses at the park are about $5 million, he said, noting Lambton also backs a park mortgage with about $14.8 million remaining, and provides it with a $2-million line of credit.

“Ideally they’d like to look at increased tenant revenue to keep them in a balanced position,” but are seeking help in the interim, he said.

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Plans to increase occupancy include improving marketing, said Derrek Lennox of Kewin Consulting, which was retained to review the park’s finances and prepare a recovery plan.

“Almost all research parks and similar organizations across North America and into Europe have been feeling this lag,” in occupancy with more companies working from home and “the cyclical nature that just goes on,” he said.

Previous marketing methods were stalled during the pandemic.

“Now we have to reinvigorate those,” he said, as the research park also looks into strategic planning.

Plans are to work with the county to “restructure that gap funding that we need, as well as subsequent funding that we may need to get those new tenants in,” he said, adding the park also is seeking grant money.

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Recently a few companies left the research park unexpectedly, while others reduced the space they were leasing, he and Albion said.

“We are entering the growth stage now of our real estate cycle,” Albion said. “So we’ve had a couple of tenants who left the park. The majority of our tenants have renewed, but some have downsized their footprint.”

The park has a strong history over 21 years of helping incubate companies that have gone on to create jobs and industries in Sarnia-Lambton, Albion said.

Community economic development officials spoke about its critical importance for economic development and innovation, as did Lambton College president and CLDLC vice-chair Rob Kardas, noting the college has grown a strong research reputation as a research park partner.

“It was great to see that we can count on your support in the next few months,” he told council.

All but Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, and Sarnia councillors Dave Boushy and Bill Dennis voted to  provide a portion of the funding request.

Bradley, research park board chair, argued for county council to take a “leap of faith” and give the organization the full amount and more runway to get on its feet again.

“I think no one is denying the value of it,” he said. “The question is, can we get to a better place in the next nine months.”

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