Bridgewater ‘back and forth’ in talks with Sander family over proposed donation

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Stephen Sander, 83, of Vancouver once taught physical education in Bridgewater, when he was then named Sukhwant Singh.</p>

The Town of Bridgewater (TOB) has been having ongoing discussions with the family of Stephen Sander and his company Hollyburn Properties since October, when the Vancouver real estate magnate and philanthropist offered to make a major donation to the municipality.

"I can tell you that we have not yet determined the nature of the donation, but that a MRI has been ruled out," Bridgewater mayor David Mitchell reported in an email from France last week, where he was attending a Michelin Connected Cities Conference.

While Sander hadn't specified what the donation would be, at the time Hollyburn's spokesperson, Shawnessy Luke, had pointed out in an email that the company has donated "two MRI's in Vancouver at a cost of $1-million each and are hoping to find a way to positively impact the lives of as many members of the Bridgewater community as possible."

The town's communications officer, Patrick Hirtle, told LighthouseNOW last week that "several in the community" had suggested an MRI as a possible option.

"But from what I understand, the previous projects that the Sander family has been involved with that involved units have all been restorations on existing units, basically, refurbishments.

"As opposed to starting from scratch here, which is what they would be required to do. And it would be a much more significant project," Hirtle said.

Sander, who is 83, contacted LighthouseNOW in the fall to say he wanted to repay the town for the kindness and welcome he received when he arrived in Canada years ago and worked as a teacher here.

"I would like to donate some money ... So I thought first of all tell you, and you can spread the word," Sander told this newspaper in a telephone call from Vancouver.

Stephen Sander's life is a a veritable rags-to-riches story beginning in Gujanwala in Punjab, now Pakistan.

But he credits the start of his good fortune to the town of Bridgewater.

In the early 1960s, Sander, a physical education teacher who then went by his birth name - Sukhwant Singh - was recruited by the former Bridgewater Junior Senior High School to help meet demand from the Baby Boom. He's never looked back since.

He would later leave Bridgewater and take up teaching jobs in British Columbia, where he eventually transitioned into real estate.

An article in The Globe and Mail described the company that Sander founded 45 years ago as "among the largest managers of rental buildings in Canada."

The family-run business, which Luke suggested was worth more than $1.5 billion, currently operates 85 rental apartment communities with more than 5,400 suites in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa.

Hirtle said that discussions at the moment are "still very much in the back and forth stages.

"We've had, I guess, two or three different conversations about potential projects in Bridgewater that may sort of fit with their mandate."

Hirtle said the town has been speaking with Sander's daughter Karen, and Hollyburn's Luke.

"I mean they've got an idea of the community projects that they would like to invest in that they feel would represent Mr. Sander's legacy, and the kinds of things he would like to see in the community."

According to Hirtle, one of the areas they have talked about is Generations Active Park, the 18 acres of parkland the town owns off Glen Allan Drive and near the HB Studios Fieldhouse and the off-leash dog park.

He notes that in 2013 a master plan had been developed for the site.

"That's something that we've mentioned to them as one possible option. But I know that there are several on the table that they're looking at," said Hirtle.

"They have a group on their end of things that is going to review things and figure out what fits best for them and the kind of gift that they would like to give to Bridgewater."

In any case, Hirtle confirmed "there's an implicit assumption that whatever the investment is, if it falls to the town to take ownership of something, the town would be responsible for the costs going forward as well.

"So that's certainly something we're bearing in mind too," said Hirtle.

"That's why we have these conversations going back and forth right now. To figure out what the intention is on both parties and to figure out what we can afford as a community as well."

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