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Windsor’s downtown revival – trend or blip?

Tony Wood, hard at work getting his new store, a combination of instrument repair and bicycle rentals, up and running in time for March.
Tony Wood, hard at work getting his new store, a combination of instrument repair and bicycle rentals, up and running in time for March. - Colin Chisholm

New businesses filling up vacant storefronts in Windsor’s downtown

Something is changing in Windsor.

Shop windows in the downtown, which have been vacant for months or even years in some cases, are starting to fill up with new shops and services – and they aren’t your usual stores either.

Tony Wood is busy putting the finishing touches on his new concept on Water Street, a combination cycling rentals and instrument sales/repair shop called The Spoke & Note.

The interior is full of obvious signs of renovation – wooden boards, a circular saw lying in wait, a level leaning against the wall. It’s a work in progress. But the rainbow hearts and messages from Wood’s young children on the giant chalkboard shows there’s lots of love inside as well.

Wood grew up at Moe’s Place Music in Windsor, now Moe’s Place Music School, playing music and learning how to repair instruments. Although he’s happy Moe’s has focused on music education, he wanted to bring the original Moe’s vibe back to town.

Read more about Moe’s transitioning into a music school • Windsor music store switching tune to focus on education

“We were just missing a local area to buy strings, to hang out, to jam,” Wood said. “I wanted to take that, re-create it, add my own vision to it and also apply another passion of mine, which is cycling, community, and exercise.”

He figured, “Why not blend the two together?”

The store will encompass instrument sales and repairs, as well as accessories on one side, with bicycle rentals, service and more on the other. He’s hoping to open his doors at the end of March.

The store is located on Water Street, in the former Our Mother’s Keepers location, which moved to Gerrish Street in early 2018.

Read more about Our Mother's Keepers move • On the move: Our Mother's Keepers hosting storewide sale prior to Gerrish Street relocation

More than retail

Tony Gallant helps with the renovations at the Spoke and Note, a new business opening in Windsor in March 2018. - Colin Chisholm
Tony Gallant helps with the renovations at the Spoke and Note, a new business opening in Windsor in March 2018. - Colin Chisholm

“Another reason behind this was thinking about how I can enhance and give back to the community, making it into more of the Windsor we want it to be,” he said. “Any small town needs to have some individuality and character to survive and thrive.”

Wood points to other local examples of businesses that have done just that, including the Schoolhouse Brewery, the Spitfire Arms Pub, and the Mosaic Market as places that have their own unique character and pride – expressions of the store owners themselves.

It’s something Wood feels that customers just can't get with big box stores.

“I feel like Windsor is experiencing a resurgence with young entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in general,” he said. “People who want to be a part of the community.”

After living in New Zealand and travelling the world, Wood wanted to come back to Windsor, put down roots and establish himself fully in a community he could call his own. For him, Windsor - his hometown - was the only place to do it. And he says he's not alone – he says there are a lot of young people looking to come back to Windsor to set down roots of their own.

“I didn’t just want to be a number in a city off somewhere else, I was missing that feeling,” he said.

He’s optimistic that more merchants will occupy the empty storefronts downtown, saying that when he was looking to rent a place for his store, many landlords told him they were already booked up or already had several calls of interest.

“I think a lot of people are seeing that this town is the next big spot,” he said.

Open(ing) for business

The Spoke & Note isn’t the only new spot that’s filling up windows that previously had ‘for rent’ signs hanging from their doors.

Windsor Makers, a social enterprise, set to launch in April, has taken up a huge amount of storefront along Gerrish Street.

Read more about Windsor Makers • New creative space in downtown Windsor to give people hands-on experience with arts, crafts

Dr. Robert Buranello, who is originally from Toronto and Dr. Astrid Friedrich, who is originally from Montreal, are not only opening up a business in Windsor’s downtown, they also moved to the community. - Colin Chisholm
Dr. Robert Buranello, who is originally from Toronto and Dr. Astrid Friedrich, who is originally from Montreal, are not only opening up a business in Windsor’s downtown, they also moved to the community. - Colin Chisholm

WINEGRUNTS, also new in town, is a wine bar set to open in May.

The owners are also new to Windsor, having just moved to the community in the summer of 2017.

Their love of Windsor and love of wine was a perfect pairing for their dream to open their own wine bar, following a career in academia and wine tourism.

Dr. Astrid Friedrich, originally from Montreal, and Dr. Robert Buranello, from Toronto, came to Nova Scotia on a holiday and fell in love with the scenery - and frankly, the wine - eventually deciding to put down roots of their own.

“We actually got stuck on ‘the rock’ (Newfoundland) for an extra 10 days because the ferry crashed, so that extended our vacation there,” Friedrich said, saying they have to thank the ferry driver because that’s what led them to stay in the region for longer.

“We got screeched in, we’re honourary Newfies now.”

Having no idea about Nova Scotia’s wine industry, they were quickly smitten by the quality and variety, hitting 12 wineries in 10 days.

“We were sitting at Luckett’s, were hitting cheers, and I think having a glass of Tidal Bay, which is quite fitting, and (Buranello) said, ‘Let’s move to Nova Scotia,’” she said. “It took us two years, but we did.”

Friedrich said the reception from the community has already been positive, saying they’ve received unsolicited job applications and questions from potential customers already.

Renovations are underway, and the interior will have a warm, quasi-Mediterranean vibe, with some Windsor accents.

They’re planning to add a window to let in more natural light as well as feature live music, including local artists.

But, most importantly for Friedrich – there's no attitude. The idea is to leave your troubles at the door and relax inside.

Buranello said they’re planning to highlight local wines, with the majority of their stock coming from Nova Scotia wineries.

“Windsor really is the perfect location for people who go between the Valley and Halifax,” he said. “If for nothing else, just as a place for people to stop and there are three wineries here now.”

The Bent Bridge winery, located in Windsor Forks, is expected to open this summer.

“So, we figured, why not showcase all of those?”

WINEGRUNT will also feature small plates and appetizers. Buranello said they’re not competing with the existing restaurants, they’re complimenting them.

“If the Spitfire (pub) has an overflow and have to wait, they can hang out here. Cocoa Pesto? Maybe they arrive in town early and stop here first,” he said.

Not just a blip

Adrienne Wood, co-chairwoman of the Windsor Business Enhancement Society, says this recent resurgence of new businesses is more than just a blip.

“I think there’s a certain amount of ebb and flow. Over the years, this town has gone up and down in cycles, but I think that this cycle has been long overdue,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy happening right now and a lot of positive movement happening.”

She also owns a naturopathic practice in the downtown and is part of the organizing committee working to revive the Farmers’ Market, which closed last summer.

Learn more about the Avon River Community Market  • Windsor Farmers' Market to get second life thanks to Happy Community project

“It’s not just a blip, I think Windsor has a lot going for it and that people are starting to recognize that and catch on,” she said.

Windsor’s strategic location – between the Annapolis Valley and Halifax and right on Highway 101 – makes it an accessible and attainable shopping destination, she adds.

“People might come to the wine bar, pick up a snack from the Schoolhouse Brewery and then have a picnic at Fort Edward,” she said. “Businesses can really play on the fact that you can come to Windsor and spend a whole day here if you know what’s available.”

She believes the millennial generation will likely lead the charge as the downtown continues to revive.

“They have money, an interest in supporting local, it’s this almost hipster mentality of going back to the grassroots and going to farmers’ markets and having their own chickens,” she said. “That’s catching on in that generation.”

In order for growth to continue, though, community members will need to be open to new ideas, she cautions.

“Being OK with change is really important,” she said. “Some people are nervous about doing things in a different way. Having an open mind will be really important for the town, the WBES and the citizens all around. If people have ideas, encourage them, let them fly with it."

People also have to support their downtown merchants if they want those storefronts to stay filled.

“Make it a priority to come here before going out of town,” she said. “You have to put the energy into that sometimes.”

There’s still room for more, she said, with a growing number of young families moving to the community.

Still vacancies

But it’s not all shiny and new. Several abandoned and decrepit buildings, including the former Stephens and Yeatons garage on Water Street - and even the vacant Nova Scotia Textiles Building - show that there’s still a lot that needs to be done.

Read more about the Nova Scotia Textiles Building • What exactly is happening with Windsor's iconic Nova Scotia Textiles Building?

“We’re really between a rock and a hard place with some of these more derelict buildings because it’s up to the owners of those buildings who are responsible for them,” she said, adding that the WBES has been in constant contact with the town on this issue.

“They can keep putting notices on the windows and sending them warnings, but at the end of the day, you can’t put a gun to somebody’s head and make them do something, they have to want to do it. A lot of these owners are absentee, they don’t live here and don’t seem to care. It’s hard to make people care about this.”

What caused this resurgence? Was it the rebuild of Gerrish Street? Or the town’s plan to implement a commercial development district?

Or is it simply creative, motivated people trying something new?

Whatever it is, Mayor Anna Allen couldn’t be happier.

“There is definitely a synergy being created in town with an energized, positive outlook from the merchants,” Allen said. “This has been going on in the past year and it was very evident seeing how well the businesses survived the ‘Big Dig.’ Since then, new business start-ups have happened and there are more coming this year. Certainly, infrastructure improvements have helped but seeing new young families and people being very active in their community has produced great results."

She points to other new businesses that are experiencing successes.

"A very creative business called Makers, crafted by Kathy Monroe and Catherine Jamieson, is taking off quickly before the doors are even opened," Allen said. "There is a lot of interest from the 'come from away folks' like WineGrunt owners who chose Nova Scotia and then Windsor when looking to make a change in their lives. We also have the businesses that have been here for decades and are committed to staying in downtown Windsor. The Windsor Business Society also has taken on a great vision for our town helping to improve our facade."

She is hopeful the new businesses will create a stronger downtown.

"Business people understand that competition is good for business bringing more people into town to experience more opportunities for shopping, eating," she said.

"In general, looking at our town, you see properties are selling, new buildings being constructed and unsightly (properties) being torn down. Older homes are lovingly being renovated, owners taking pride in their property and people actively involved in their community."

She says council's next step is to meet with all the downtown property owners and share what is available to them to improve their properties.

"Small and steady steps are being taken and we must capture this positive synergy in making our little town the best town anywhere," Allen added.

Read more

• Windsor's Gerrish Street officially reopens during International Town Crier Competition

• Windsor may establish commercial development district to boost business growth

Tony Wood, left, is the new owner of Spoke and Note in Windsor. With the help of Tony Gallant, right, he's working to get the business ready to open in March 2018. - Colin Chisholm
Tony Wood, left, is the new owner of Spoke and Note in Windsor. With the help of Tony Gallant, right, he's working to get the business ready to open in March 2018. - Colin Chisholm

Back at the Spoke & Note on Water Street, Tony Wood said he’s optimistic that the recent resurgence in Windsor’s downtown is more than just a fad.

“The age of big box stores is over,” he said. “People see the flaws in that system, how it pulls the carpet from under the feet of small towns and really destroys local economies.”

And that's causing the buy local movement to grow.

“I think people are really getting it now, that if you spend locally, it’s cyclical, it stays here. If somebody gets their guitar serviced here, I then go to Schoolhouse and buy a pint, then that person goes to the Mosaic Market. People are getting back to that.”

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