Business is booming at Aliments Matrix, but expansion of L’Orignal distribution site stalled by unavailability of land

It is the best of times for Aliments Matrix, with business booming and new customers being added regularly. But with success comes the need for expansion and that has become a major issue for the local food distribution company.

“We’re running out of space,” says company owner Denis Guindon, who purchased the former grocery store building on on John Street in L’Orignal in 2017 and has invested considerably in modifying the structure, adding multiple bay doors and commercial refrigeration inside .

The building in L’Orignal, combined with the company’s previously existing space in Hawkesbury, was intended to be sufficient to cover expected growth, but as with many companies, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. During the pandemic Aliments Matrix’s reputation for reliable service has attracted increased business from existing customers – including AgriPure and Nestlé Canada – along with new clients, as supply chain issues persist throughout Canada and the entire world.

“They’ve figured out that it is easier to deal with one company that takes their business seriously, rather than dealing with headaches,” Guindon says proudly. “We provide a very good service and take what we do very seriously.”

“We’ve been lucky enough that they’re putting their eggs in our basket.”

Guindon would like Aliment Matrix’s main distribution facility to remain at its current location, but for that he needs more space. The current building is 7,000 square feet and he would like to add another 15,000, including doubling the building’s height. But to do that requires more land and the only vacant adjoining property belongs to the Conseil scolaire de district catholique de l’Est Ontario (CSDCEO). And it isn’t for sale.

Guindon approached the school board regarding purchasing the triangular piece of land – which sits between his company, a railway line and the football field of the CSDCEO’s École élémentaire catholique Saint-Jean-Baptiste – and later worked with fellow L’Orignal businessman André Chabot, who made a presentation on the company’s behalf to the CSDCEO council, however the board ultimately decided to retain the property.

Jean Lemay, president of the CSDCEO Conseil scolaire de district catholique de l’Est ontarien said school board councilors appreciated the presentation, but believe there could be future need for the land, which is attached to the existing school’s property.

“The adjoining land is also part of St. Jean de Baptiste School and we’re thinking that eventually we might need soccer fields or football fields,” Lemay explained. “We have to think about 20 years ahead of time. We think eventually L’Orignal’s going to grow and that school is going to be called to be expanded and we will need the land.”

The second factor is Ontario Regulation 444/98: DISPOSITION OF SURPLUS REAL PROPERTY AND ACQUISITION OF REAL PROPERTY, which covers the sale of surplus properties by school boards. Under the regulation, boards cannot just sell property to private entities. The surplus land must first be offered to a number of public organizations entitled to receive notification of surplus school property sale or lease, including other school boards, public organizations and municipal governments. Organizations may submit an ‘expression of interest’ within 90 days of receiving notification of sale or lease of surplus property.

Lemay said the process means that even if the CSDCEO did want to sell the property to Aliments Matrix, there is no guarantee the company would end up with the land.

“We can’t just decide and say yes we will sell to Matrix,” the CSDCEO’s president noted. “It can’t be done like that – we have to offer it to everybody else first.”

Lemay said the CSDCEO has had offers for other school properties – including vacant schools – over the years, but has in the past been unable to get around the regulations.

“We’ve had bad experiences with that,” he said.

While he understands the reasoning for the board’s decision, Guindon is extremely disappointed – pointing out that the land has sat vacant since the CSDCEO purchased it in 1952 – and is worried he may have to move the company to another location. The planned expansion would create 20-22 new full time positions at Aliments Matrix, which currently has 51 full time employees and hires about a dozen temporary workers in the summer.

“That expansion has been put on the back burner,” Guindon says. “With them not selling me the piece of land unfortunately I don’t know if I can stay.”

“We have a huge expansion coming on within 12 months and I will definitely outgrow that building.”

In addition to the fact the L’Orignal location is geographically perfect for the company – which distributes fresh and frozen dairy products throughout Eastern Ontario and Western Québec, Guindon notes that he and Aliments Matrix both have a special connection to the community. He started the business with one truck in 1991, operating out of an apartment he was living in above the historic L’Orignal courthouse. He moved to Brownsburg in 1993 after purchasing the old Lemay Dairy factory, but in 1998 brought Aliments Matrix back to L’Orignal in a location County Road 17. In 2008 he moved the company to a location in Hawkesbury, which still exists, before purchasing the old grocery store in L’Orignal in 2017.

“I may need to find another location – not that I’m really keen on doing that because I like the location where I am,” Guindon says. “Anything we pick up from suppliers is either Montreal or Ottawa, so we’re very well positioned.”

Guindon says be plans to rent warehouse space in Ottawa until be comes up with a permanent solution to resolve the company’s storage needs. He is working on a smaller expansion project, including the doubling of the current building’s height, along with a new plan to expand the footprint of the structure as much as possible on the existing property.

Guidon had hoped to purchase land next to his building that is owned by the Conseil scolaire de district catholique de l’Est Ontario (CSDCEO), however the local school board has decided to retain the property in anticipation of potential future expansion of École élémentaire catholique Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Photo: Reid Masson

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