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Redpath Sugar is staying put, condos be damned

Jonathan Bamberger, president of Redpath Sugar Ltd. is photographed at the company's refinery

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Mandarin has berthed and its 18 Ukrainian crew members are bone-tired after 22 days at sea.

The 186-metre-long vessel arrived at Redpath Sugar on Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. laden with 19,000 metric tonnes of Brazilian raw sugar that took it from the South Atlantic Ocean to the St. Lawrence River before mooring at Toronto's harbour.

Captain Viktor Shyyan hadn't slept in the past three days. But he patiently allowed two Globe and Mail reporters aboard, and had one of the ship's six hatches opened to reveal massive dunes of sugar below. A waft of air thick with the scent of syrupy molasses rose as the roof folded open; everything was sticky to the touch.

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Next week, a brand-new $10-million emerald-green unloader will take bites of sugar from the ship and deposit it into a hopper, from whence it will move along conveyer belts into the refinery's mighty sugar shed - a warehouse the size of two football fields that holds a craggy mountain of up to 60,000 tonnes of raw sugar, coarse golden grains with a burnt marshmallow smell.

It's a sight distinctly reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Canada's largest sugar refinery may be surrounded by shiny new knowledge industries and condominiums springing up along Toronto's waterfront, but the iconic remnant of traditional port industry has no plans to uproot or follow distilleries, flour mills and war-ship-building plants into extinction. Instead, it is actively re-investing in its waterfront presence, as its new unloader shows. Its old cranes lasted 50 years; the company figures the new one will last at least that long.

"We have several hundred million invested here, and are investing more every year. We're staying," says Jonathan Bamberger, who has been president for the past five years. "With good planning, there's no reason why we can't have a successful waterfront with different uses."

The remnant of another era raises questions on whether traditional industry still has a place on the gentrified waterfront. The answer is a resounding yes, despite challenges around mixing residential space with a 24-hour refinery, says John Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Waterfront Toronto.

Industry is part of the "theatre of the harbour" and people like the authenticity that brings, he says. "I've been to a lot of waterfronts around the world, and those that are the most boring are those that have razed everything and started from scratch, with just condos and sailing slips. Boring. There's no soul."

With 52 years in its current location, Redpath's story is a rich part of the city's history. It is also, now, a tale of globalization: owned by Cuban exiles and run by a Brit, it processes sugar from Brazil and Guatemala using a German unloader and Californian robots to pack sugar into bags - all while trading global sugar futures on its Toronto trading floor.

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Adaptation and growth

The company's roots date to 1854 when John Redpath - building contractor, anti-slavery advocate and father of 17 - established the Canada Sugar Refinery in Montreal. Its Toronto refinery opened in 1959, coinciding with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Today the Redpath logo still reflects its founder's actual signature and is the country's oldest food trademark. Sugar from its Toronto refinery is trucked to food-processing firms across Southern Ontario and its packaged sugar is sold throughout Canada.

The Toronto facility lies on 4.25 hectares of waterfront, consisting of a dock, sugar shed, refinery, packaging plant (all connected by conveyer belts), head office, truck loading docks and two silos that hold eight million pounds of white granulated sugar apiece. The building exterior also sports a well-known whale mural.

There is also its museum, for school groups and members of the public, run by Richard Feltoe, who has been curator and corporate archivist for the past 34 years and, sporting mutton-chop sideburns, radiates an appropriately Willy Wonka-ish enthusiasm over the history of sugar.

The refinery may be steeped in history but it has morphed with the times. The company now posts photos on Flickr, tweets and has 1,855 Facebook fans. Its packaging plant is highly automated, with brand new robots that place boxes of sugar onto skids. It may be surrounded by knowledge-sector facilities, such as Corus Entertainment and George Brown's new campus, but it too is becoming more high tech, with more engineers on board, along with global commodity traders and sophisticated software to track sugar shipping.

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It's a local landmark, but also a reflection of a global market. Friday's shipment of sugar comes from Ribeirao Preto, an agribusiness centre in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Cane is harvested mostly by machine there and then trucked or shipped by rail to the capacity-choked port of Santos.

In the early part of the season - March to May - Redpath gets its raw sugar from Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia. After that, the source shifts to Brazil, the world's largest raw-sugar exporter. From December to March, the company doesn't get any new shipments, instead processing sugar stockpiled on several nearby lake ships.

Redpath's ownership has had several incarnations. Britain's Tate & Lyle PLC owned the company until 2007, when it sold Redpath to American Sugar Refining Inc. ASR is a refining company with two shareholders - Florida Crystals and the Sugar Cane Growers Co-operative of Florida. The former was started by Cubans who fled Castro's regime for Florida in the early sixties; the latter is comprised of 54 sugar growers in the state.

Redpath, which employs 250 people, has kept its name and brand throughout. It is now the only business left that uses bulk freighters on the city side of the port.

Making nice with new kids on the block

One of Redpath's biggest challenges these days is neighborliness. It has no plans to budge from the waterfront, and is playing a greater role in sponsoring local attractions, such as a stage at Harbourfront and Tall Ships visits. It will throw open the doors of its sugar shed this weekend, with Doors Open Toronto.

But it's also getting penned in by development on all sides. Redpath executives fret about the growth of nearby condos, and the potential clash, should new neighbours object to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week production plant, with its noise, bustle and persistent odour of burnt marshmallows and molasses.

There is a romanticism about seeing big oceangoing freighters anchored in the city's port, but "at two in the morning when the ship is unloading or sounding its horn, it might be a lot less romantic" to nearby condo dwellers, Mr. Bamberger worries.

Planning a mixed-use harbour poses extra challenges, says Waterfront Toronto's Mr. Campbell, but they're ones that can be resolved by having buffers - such as office buildings - between industry and private dwellings. He cites Rotterdam as an example of a great, mixed-use waterfront.

The company's new unloader is quieter than its old equipment, and the company says it's taking pains to be a good neighbour. As a business, being on the waterfront makes the most economic sense, and it plans to survive and thrive by changing with the times.

"The trick is to make sure you don't get frozen in time. Any business that freezes will eventually die.," Mr. Bamberger says.

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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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