SAINT JOHN – Ever since he was 16-years-old, Dr. David Elias was into developing and fixing up houses.
“My grandmother had an older house that needed some repairs,” said Elias in an interview with Huddle. “I started off by repairing that house when I was in Grade Nine or 10, then I got the bug. I liked the repairing, I liked the construction. From there, it’s grown.”
That passion has grown to lead Elias to take on two of the biggest real estate developments in Saint John in recent years: The City Hall building in partnership with Historica’s Keith Brideau, and Fundy Quay, the old Coast Guard building site on the waterfront. It’s for this reason that Huddle has named Dr. David Elias as its Business News Maker Of The Year for Saint John.
Before taking on the on City Hall and Fundy Quay projects, Elias had been involved in a variety of other real estate projects, including purchasing several residential and commercial buildings. He’s developed Vimy Estates in Saint John; Restigouche Centre, a commercial mall and business centre in Campbellton; and North Market a mixed commercial and residential complex in uptown Saint John.
Elias says there are two big reasons why he decided to take on the projects. One was the chance to work with his two sons, Alex, who is an accountant, and Chris, who is a lawyer.
“For us to be able to work together on something is the thing that really motivated me and is really behind the decision to embark on these two projects over the last year and a half,” said Elias. “They bring together certain skill-sets and we’re very fortunate. We have a lot of good people that we work with and work with us.”
The second motivation stems from the need to improve the province and city they’ve chosen to live and invest in.
“New Brunswick at times has its challenges, however, we feel there are opportunities to be successful in New Brunswick and to invest in New Brunswick. There are certain structural elements and opportunities that exist in New Brunswick that people are not maybe aware of or taking advantage of. There are some opportunities to contribute to the community also,” said Elias.
“If we’re here, we’re looking at trying to have investments we feel are going to be beneficial in the long-term.”
One of the main challenges New Brunswick, and particularly Saint John, faces is a decreasing population. While cities like Moncton and Fredericton benefit from the migration of young people from the northern part of the province, Saint John does not. Elias believes development, especially the Fundy Quay project on the waterfront, has a role to play in addressing the issue.
“No one is going to do it for us. We as Saint Johners and we as New Brunswickers need to step up to the plate. It’s not going to happen to us, so we have to lead,” said Elias.
“When we first looked at this project, we were aware of some of the challenges we face in our landscape. One of the biggest things on a macroeconomic perspective is that our population is decreasing … if you drill down into those populations, the sector we’re missing and we’re losing is youth from 18 to 35.”
A lot of successful North American cities have a developed and active waterfront. Elias said opening up Saint John’s waterfront and putting in strategic development plays a role in creating a community young people want to live in.
“Right now, the waterfront is not achieving its full potential in its role within our community,” he said. “If you look at other vibrant cities, the waterfront is dynamic and active and you feel the waterfront. That’s why we looked at this project. If we could get some of that energy and vibrancy to our community, this property is right at the nexus of all that.”
The Fundy Quay development is still in the early planning stages. Meanwhile, the City Hall project, which was announced in late 2018, has seen significant progress. Elias says demolition has happened on eight floors. Four of those are in the process of being rebuilt and handed to the City, which plans to make them its offices. In the new year, they will be focusing on the high-traffic pedway area and exterior improvements.
“We’re doing a lot of infrastructure within the building, meaning the energy management of the building, upgrading systems and all the heavy stuff within the building,” said Elias. “Then we will be getting to the pedway and exterior improvements and re-branding the building next year.”
Real Estate development isn’t Elias’s only entrepreneurial venture. He is also the president and CEO of Canadian Health Solutions, which develops and provides health solutions to the third-party market, which includes public security, policing, workers compensation, and other areas that are outside medicare.
“Entrepreneurship is really interesting in that it’s providing solutions,” said Elias. “It gives you the opportunity to identify situations and try to provide a solution and sometimes it allows you to innovate and to think outside the box. If you can succeed at that, it’s very rewarding.”
His desire to solve problems and find solutions through business comes from his family, most of whom were merchants or in real estate.
“We would meet at my grandmother’s house and my dad and all of his siblings were in businesses and were all successful,” said Elias. “I’d be watching them problem solve, innovate and talk about their businesses. It was really interesting to learn, but I also get to see both the challenges and the rewards of it. I was interested right from the beginning.”
Yet, it takes more than just one person to solve challenges and create solutions. Elias says the people he works with has been a huge part of his success.
“It’s all about the people. We’re just fortunate enough to try to be bringing together some of the pieces, but we can’t do it without the people,” he said “We’re fortunate enough to have a great number of people who work with us on the regular basis that are dedicated, smart, and fantastic. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to achieve what we’ve been able to achieve.”
The focus on people will also continue to guide his business philosophy.
“If we can create a project and that creates some vibrancy back and attracts the youth and that vibrancy so that people don’t want to move away and young minds want to stay here and create … our community will benefit, our businesses will benefit and that’s why we’re pushing on the things that we’re doing,” said Elias.