The Trials And Tribulations Of Downtown Windsor (Part 2)
In September’s column in this space — “The Trials And Tribulations Of Downtown Windsor” (Part 1) — I identified the mounting challenges facing the city’s long-suffering gateway, notably the virtual disappearance of retail stores, and the emergence of the heart-rending opioid drug crisis, interlaced with the rise of homelessness and panhandling.
Last month’s article struck a chord, while angering some merchants and revamped Downtown Windsor Business Improvement Association (DWBIA) board members who have skin in the game.
“Thanks for bringing attention to this,” comments Nichole Demers, Owner of Grill Twenty at 20 University Avenue East. “It (downtown) is not so far gone that it can’t be saved, but we can’t keep ignoring it like those in power want to do. I still love downtown. I still believe, but let’s move on this now.”
While another social media post claimed downtown looks like a zombie apocalypse, Windsor’s core remains a long way from “Skid Row” in Los Angeles or East Hastings in Vancouver.
I’m not one to sugarcoat things, but as promised, the focus of Part 2 reveals some positives.
An obvious one is the Downtown Windsor Farmers’ Market, which operates Saturdays from May 25 to October 26, on Pelissier Street at Maiden Lane. The market is co-sponsored by the DWBIA and the Downtown Windsor Community Collaborative (DWCC), and has enjoyed a boffo business this summer.
DWCC Collaborative Coordinator Sarah Cipkar reports that 50-odd vendors attract 2,500 to 3,000 customers each week. They come from far and wide looking for healthy, locally grown produce, crafts and a down-home community atmosphere.
DWBIA Chair Brian Yeomans notes that another indicator of downtown’s drawing power was the 7,000 Toronto Raptors super fans who showed up at Charles Clark Square (nicknamed “Jurassic Park”) in June to view National Basketball Association games.
Yeomans uses that example to demonstrate the fickle nature of public opinion.
“A week later, when Starbucks announced it was leaving its Ouellette location, downtown (reputedly) is falling apart,” he muses.
By the way, “Jurassic Park” organizer and long-time downtown bar owner Renaldo Agostino says an exciting new events’ space is planned at Imperial Music Hall, 285 Ouellette Avenue.
My September column noted the high turnover of restaurants and bars, but left out thriving, long-time hospitality businesses like: The Manchester Pub, The Loose Goose Restopub & Lounge, La Guardia, The Riverside Keg, Panache, Mazaar, The Bull & Barrel Urban Saloon, Four Points By Sheraton/Fionn MacCools and The Bistro At The River, to name a few.
Up to date vacancy rates were unavailable from the city at this writing, but the DWBIA office reports that there were 615 ground floor members at last count, with 44 vacancies.A lot of active merchants are doing very well. One of those is late-night dance and nightclub Tequila Bob’s at 576 Ouellette Avenue. A throwback to the kiddy bar days, it attracts on average over 3,000 people a week to its second floor party room, according to Co-owners Kash Hasan and Patrick Kim.
A year and a half ago they purchased the building, which had been partially vacant for over 10 years. They invested heavily in renovations on the empty second floor and almost overnight transformed it into the largest bar in the city with 800-plus capacity.
They also own the award winning Ariius Nightclub & Ultralounge inside Caesars Windsor (599 capacity). Now The Chelsea Restaurant on the ground floor of Tequila Bob’s is due to open this month.
An upscale chic New York style pub, The Chelsea has a capacity of 450 and features original New York pizza cooked in a coal fired oven.
A banner, posted onsite on the entire building before the restaurant opened, reads: “Making Your Downtown Great Again — One Business At A Time.” This phrase is still used by the owners on their social media promotions. (NOTE: A colourful exterior shot of both businesses was featured on the cover of our September issue).
“The only coal-fired oven in Ontario puts downtown Windsor on the stage,” boasts Hasan. “Critical to our success is being unique and different. This is what helped boost the renaissance of downtown Detroit.”
Other relative newcomers to today’s downtown scene are Demers’ Grill Twenty; On A Roll Sushi & Sliders, 63 Pitt Street East, owned by the Stratis family and Mexican restaurant Quesada Burritos & Tacos at 337 Ouellette Avenue.
Along with Yeomans, Demers formally owned the Kilt & Fiddle Irish Pub, but it closed down, along with other Chatham Street establishments: Koko Pellies, Pitt For Pasta, The Pour House Pub, and Lefty’s, at the hands (allegedly) of an unscrupulous landlord with reports of illegal evictions, changing the locks and/or major rent increases.
She worked for out-of-town establishments for four years before saving enough coin to set up her restaurant in the old United Grill, 20 University Avenue East, a year ago.
She is excited about the dawn of the new DWBIA board, in particular its strategy of pulling back from sponsoring costly one-off events such as the “Fiesta Latina” and concentrate on an enhanced retail recruitment drive.
She and Yeomans believe filling up the vacancies with businesses and residents will generate foot traffic, make the homeless panhandlers less visible and generate pride among the occupants to shovel snow and clean up the alleys.
The DWBIA has been offering commercial rent subsidies to new businesses for several years with mixed success. Of 20 businesses from eligible sectors, 13 stayed in business downtown or elsewhere, for several years.
Sunrise Bakery, a neighbour of Grill Twenty on University Avenue East, was a notable exception. Owner Ali Bazzi, citing lack of foot traffic, relocated to Walker Road in The City Market in 2017.
The new board is currently working on a new business recruitment program to be rolled out by the end of the year.
In 2017, the City of Windsor started picking up the tab for the DWBIA’s façade improvement plan, splitting the cost with merchants to spruce up their storefronts, with the city’s share capped at $30,000.
So far seven have been approved.
City Council, recently agreed to set aside funding to encourage development of vacant lots, with a special eye on small scale residential growth downtown.
Three incentivized multi residential developments are targeted for downtown, including a 24-unit luxury condominium under construction across from the Windsor Public
Library (Central Branch) which has been sold to The Downtown Mission of Windsor.
The rebirth of Chatham Street West can be viewed as positive for downtown.
Spurred on by a suite of generous tax deferrals and incentive grants, a local investment group has converted the long vacant Fish Market into a mixed use structure that houses Detroit’s Quicken Loans finance company.
Several other vacant buildings have been purchased on Chatham, and across the street from Quicken Loans, the Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corporation and Small Business Centre now inhabits the revamped City Beer Market and Chatham Street Grill buildings.
The University of Windsor and St. Clair College have done their bit, transforming old buildings like the Windsor Armouries into beautiful downtown campuses. Mega developer Shmuel Farhi has tapped into City Hall’s Community Improvement Plan (CIP) grants and tax abatements to begin the transformation of two tired Riverside Drive hotels into a high-end replacement complex including a restaurant and outdoor patio.
On a smaller, but very successful scale, the Stratis family — father Lucky, son George and daughter Gabriella have found a niche on Pitt Street East, along with Panache and La Guardia.
Lucky, who has toiled at 14 restaurants, including downtown’s ill-fated Johnny Canucks, in his colourful career, decided to jump out of retirement to open On A Roll Sushi & Sliders with his kids two years ago. The business is jam packed nightly and is a Biz X Award winner for “Restaurant That’s Hot, Hot For 2017”.
“Downtown has such potential,” he emotes, while telling me that he is planning a “Feast Of Friends Festival” next June 6 in the downtown bus station parking lot to raise money for charity, selling CDs of rock and roll songs by local musicians.
The underlying message to downtown businesses is to stop competing with each other and work together.
Lucky says police activity downtown is much better. All of the merchants I talked to agreed that petty crime is down significantly since Windsor Police Service assigned 12 additional officers downtown last year.
And finally, the city’s first legal pot shop is due to open at vacant 545 Ouellette Avenue in November. Yeomans greeted this news as a definite positive for downtown. I will reserve judgement.