AMHERST, N.S. - It appears as though plans to convert Amherst’s historic train station into a restaurant have hit a snag – again. And this time it maybe it.
Nine months after what appeared to be the final hurdle to the project had been cleared, Jeff Bembridge is no closer to taking possession of the train station so he can begin constructing the new home of Bambino’s Pizzeria.
“It’s starting to look like this is not going to happen,” Bembridge said Monday. “They want a clause that they can come back within 20 years and say they want to buy the building back at market value only, no matter what work I’ve put into it. I would become the tenant. No businessman would agree to something like that.”
In January, it seemed as though the last of several hurdles had been cleared when Amherst Mayor David Kogon confirmed the town had reached agreement with Via Rail to transfer ownership of the 109-year-old building to the town and eventually to Bembridge.
While there was some legal work to be done, he expected the deal to close in March. Little has happened since then.
“We’re waiting on Via to get back to us and all we’ve heard is nothing,” Bembridge said. “This has gone on for three years and nine months. I just don’t know if I can wait any longer. I have other projects on the go and it just seems as there is no common sense involved here.”
He said instead of sitting down and working out the issues, it appears as though Via Rail wants to do a study for this and a study for that on a building that’s empty with little or no future.
Bembridge said his issue is not with the town.
“The town has bent over backwards to make this work, it’s all Via,” Bembridge said. “I started to buy equipment for this project, but I stopped. Fact is I need a new location for Bambino’s and I’m starting to wonder if this is going to be it.”
Amherst CAO Greg Herrett said Monday the town is continuing to work on the matter and remains hopeful the outstanding issues can be resolved.
“We’re not going to negotiate the deal with Via in public,” Herrett said. “I don’t have much to say specifically about the deal on the table. It’s fair to say we’re down to one issue and we having difficulty getting Via’s attention to deal with the issue.”
Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey said he is trying to organize a meeting for all the parties to resolved any outstanding issues.
“It’s a very important project for the town. We’ve reached out to senior people at Via and they have complied with our request,” Casey said. “We will be hosting a meeting, we just have to set a date. I don’t blame Jeff for being frustrated, that’s why we want to get everyone in a room who can make a decision.”
Casey said the conditions Via Rail placed on the project “were not at all possible for an entrepreneur to meet.” It’s a condition he wouldn’t agree to as a business owner.
Earlier in January, Kogon and town council issued a news release expressing their frustration with Via Rail for dragging its feet on the project with the mayor saying he feared a proposal to save the historic building was slipping away.
A week later company spokesperson Mylene Belanger said the rail company had completed its review of the documents and returned them to the town.
The train station has been in limbo since 2012 when Via Rail closed it as part of a restructuring effort that saw a reduction of service in the Atlantic region. It has sat vacant or several years and was last used as the home of an artisans gallery.
Amherst entered into an agreement with Bembridge and Via Rail in December 2015 under which the town agreed to replace the Railway Heritage designation with a Municipal Heritage Property designation and agreed to rent a portion of the station back to the rail company so its passengers would have a waiting room and access to washrooms as well as space for the technology needed for its railway operations.
Via Rail also approved a five-year lease-to-purchase agreement the town has with Bembridge in that he would make rent payments for five years and assume ownership at the end of that period.