Fiona Gilligan could have done what was expected of her. What was normal. Instead, she went outside the proverbial box and did what felt right.
As a result, a priceless heritage building has been saved and working-class people have been given the opportunity to continue living in a historic neighbourhood in Ottawa.
It is the exact antithesis, in other words, of the story I told you on Monday, about heritage buildings about to be razed and people displaced — including elderly sisters who have lived in the same home for 72 years — so another condo building can go up in downtown Ottawa.
Here is the background to this new story:
Fiona Gilligan was born and raised in Ottawa and attended Carleton University, where she received a Masters of Social Work degree and once worked for the Children’s Aid Society.
While working as a social worker, Gilligan started investing in real estate. Turned out she was quite good at it. She formed a company — Arranmore Holdings — and that became her full-time job, buying and selling commercial property in Ottawa.
In 2009 she purchased 60 Cobourg St., a 26-unit, century-old apartment building in Lowertown. Less than a year later, on Jan. 6, 2010, the building caught fire.
It was your classic, four-alarm blaze. Twenty-four fire trucks had to be called out and by the time the firefighters left, only the facade was left standing. (The cause of the fire was likely electrical, although it was never fully determined.)
Dozens of people were left homeless that day and Gilligan was left owning a burned-out shell of a building. Which in Ottawa — if you have insurance — is like winning the lottery.
“I could have simply razed the building and put up condos,” she remembers. “That was one option I had. Or, I could have cashed out and sold the building, which would have been easy to do.
“I mean, I had developers climbing all over me trying to get that property. They just wouldn’t go away.”
But instead of taking the money and running, Gilligan decided to rebuild 60 Cobourg. She actually did more than rebuild it; she restored it to its former glory, a painstaking restoration project that cost her millions of dollars more than she needed to spend.
And now — because she has asked me to emphasis this next point and I have agreed I will interrupt our narrative so Gilligan can tell you something.
Which means I won’t bother telling you right away that Arranmore Holdings found new homes for every one of its tenants following the fire — including the schizophrenic man living in the basement and the elderly couple who had been living there for 30-plus years.
Or that every tenant received a cheque within two weeks for rent money owed, even though the insurance company jerked Gilligan around for eight months before finally paying up.
I won’t tell you this right away because Gilligan doesn’t want to come across as “some Mother Teresa cartoon character,” as she puts it. She would rather I make the following point, and because I’ve promised, here it is:
“I have done this,” she says, “because I will make money. In the long term, I will make very good money from owning 60 Cobourg. It’s a smart investment for me.
“But you can make money without kicking people out of their homes, or being disrespectful to the community in which you work and live. It’s called social entrepreneurship, and if you ask me, that’s a lot sexier than just making money.”
Yes, she used the word sexier. While talking about real estate development in Ottawa. You heard it here first.
It’s a pity Gilligan doesn’t own more property in Ottawa. Pity she doesn’t own the homes on Bruyere St. and St. Andrew St. in particular, the ones I told you about on Monday, that may be razed to make way for a 108-unit condo building.
After that column ran, while most people were aghast at what might happen in Lowertown, I received many comments that went something like this: “You can’t stop progress.”
Or: “It’s free enterprise, what do you expect?”
As if throwing elderly people out of their homes so we can build more half-a-million-dollar condos was some natural law of nature. Like gravity or water displacement or something.
Well, it’s not. Fiona Gilligan has just proven that. I just hope the city — which can still kill this condo project in Lowertown — is paying attention.
Source: Ottawa Sun