A Neighbourhood On The Verge, And More

By John Swartz

Last week’s announcement of grants to two downtown projects through the Downtown Tomorrow Community Improvement Plan (DTCIP) is good news for the developers, downtown merchants and the City of Orillia in whole.

Chris Montgomery received $62,500 to aid renovating the former Carousel Collectables building and Mariposa Market received $25,000 to upgrade fire safety systems ahead of plans for renovations to the second story of that building.

In particular, Montgomery’s project (which he calls the Swinton Building after William Swinton who built it 106 years ago and operated a furniture store there) has neighbourhood implications which could create other opportunities of the top end of downtown. But first, let’s examine the Mariposa Market project.

Bob Willsey has unused space at Mariposa Market he wants to make productive. He just opened an addition and one might have thought he was done.

“No, not quite yet. We’ve got a few years left in us,” said Willsey.

The unused space is the second story over the original building. To renovate it, he first has to upgrade the sprinkler system, and install a fire escape. He also wants to put in a shutter system to contain anything which might happen. Part of the issue for many businesses downtown with unused second floors is those buildings have tin tile ceilings and the fire inspectors don’t like those, especially if they are on ground floor ceilings. Willsey has the same issue upstairs too.

“The ceilings are tin tile ceilings, it’s got a great big picture window at the front, basically a floor to ceiling window,” he wants to take advantage of. He plans to add space between the levels to put in fire protection material in order to save the ceilings. He also wants to put in an additional staircase.

“It’s kind of an open concept staircase at the front of the store that has the same sort of architectural features of the main store, so it won’t be anything modern,” said Willsey. “That way we can keep that open look.”

The second level may have a gift shop, tea room, and seating area near the window overlooking the street.

“We have such a beautiful window,” Willsey said. “You can get that impression of being outside even though you are inside having lunch.”

Willsey took advantage of a building improvement grant (one of 8 kinds of grants available in the DTCIP). Businesses can apply for up to $15,000, however, an additional $10,000 grant can be made for fire improvements and access to second stories. Willsey said the grant process may seem daunting, but it’s worth it.

“We got tremendous help, we’re very pleased with the process,” Willsey said of guidance he received from City staff.

The City’s Role

Mayor Steve Clarke told those assembled for the announcement the DTCIP is an important part of implementing the Downtown Tomorrow study.

“The idea is to help businesses and property owners do things they might not otherwise have been able to afford. That’s opening residential units, improving the front of their buildings, improving signage,” Clarke said.

With Montgomery’s project, there is a bonus, he plans to create 6 apartments.

“It’s truly one of the ways we bring the downtown to a renaissance. You have more people living there, they’re walking, riding their bicycles, it’s just becomes much more vibrant,” said Clarke.

Clarke said the $87,500 investment the City is making is helping to provide $9000,000 of additional investment with those two projects.

The Swinton Building Project

Montgomery’s project looks more ambitious on paper. He’s essentially redoing the whole building and the grant helps. He got the same $25,000 Mariposa got, plus $30,000 from the DTCIP residential grant program and a $7,500 building improvement grant.

“It’s going to allow us to bring this building up to date, bring it into compliance with the Ontario Building Code, improve the energy efficiency, and of course create 6 rentals units,” Montgomery said. The main floor plan is to be split into two commercial units, but that may change depending on the requirements of whoever leases it. “That’s going to be done in a way that will enrich the community, creating new places for people to live, to work and do business. We are all hoping this is going to be a big transformation for this part of Mississaga Street.”

Montgomery is an architect and most of his work has been in the GTA. On the other hand, he’s been looking for a project here in Orillia.

“I’m originally from Orillia, went to high school here and have family connections to Orillia,” He told SUNonline/Orillia.  “My wife and I have been enjoying the community, and we’ve owned a cottage in Orillia for the last 8 years as well. We’ve always seen the main street as a healthy community experience and we really just wanted to become part of that. This opportunity came along and we think we can do something that will transform this end of Mississaga Street in a positive way.”

Economic activity is a central part of his vision, creating some for himself will have side effects on people here and the neighborhood, and that’s the most important and interesting part of the development and the City’s participation.

“It’s a kick start that has benefits to the entire community as well. We are using a local general contractor, project management company DAND Construction; they are represented here today. We are going to be using local sub trades, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, drywall installation. We hope this week to sign a contract for full replacement of the street front glazing, both on the ground floor and the second floor. That will also be done with a local Orillia supplier,” Montgomery said.

David Chalmers, Chris Montgomery, Dave Chalmers and Thomas Chalmers

DAND Construction may sound like a new name to many, but the family behind it are not strangers to Orillia. It’s a business jointly owned by Dave Chalmers and sons David and Thomas.

“My grandparents had a cottage up here a long time ago. I used to spend all my summers up here, so Orillia’s been my second home since birth. I was raised in Toronto but I spent every summer up here,” said Dave Chalmers. He’s been a permanent resident for ten years following an executive career which took him around the world. Tired of the corporate world, he turned to working with his hands building things like high end condos in the GTA. He calls himself a boutique contractor, not wanting to get involved in large projects and sticking to ones with 6 to 8 units. The Swinton Building is the perfect kind of project for him

“He’s (Montgomery) doing something that’s really unique on that street. It’s like Matchedash Lofts, only on a much different scale,” said Chalmers.  His sons have similar ties to Orillia

“I went to Couchiching Heights for one year and then I went to OD,” said David Chalmers. “I graduated in ’08. Thomas graduated, I think 3 years after that.” They both got their hands dirty working with dad, but not so much anymore.

“It’s a small business you know, you’ve got to do both. We started off where we were largely hands on and it still is that way sometimes when you need to, but for the most part we’ve transitioned into a project management builder business,” said David Chalmers. He’s more likely to be seen with a clipboard than a hammer these days, keeping things on schedule.

“When the project is going on, logistics, materials on site, trades are happy,’ are David’s priorities. “The moment the trades stop you are dead in the water. You’ve got to have good trades and they have to keep moving.”

View from 2nd floor, Swinton Building
The Bigger Picture

Moving on from one building renovation, let’s look at the neighbourhood. It starts with the Orillia Public Library. During the period the library board (of which this writer was a member at the time) was laying the groundwork for Orillia council to move ahead with rebuilding, studies about the neighbourhood effects experienced in other cities where new libraries were built were highlighted. It was cited new library buildings tended to encourage surrounding property owners to upgrade their buildings and spurred economic activity which was otherwise unforeseen in those cases and discovered in hindsight. It took a couple years longer, but it’s beginning to happen here. Montgomery illustrates the case well.

“This block has always kind of been a block to far. There’s lot of healthy activity on the blocks closer to the waterfront and despite being right beside the Opera House and the library there hasn’t really been a lot of healthy economic activity in this part of Mississaga Street,” Montgomery said. Dave Chalmers sees it too.

“The bones to these buildings, they are built almost a 100 years ago, are fantastic; the basement, the walls, everything’s good. Somebody’s got to put some money into it and make it nice. Right across the street, look what you’ve got, the library and the Opera House, what a lovely place to have nice buildings; make that whole block really nice. It deserves it. Orillia deserves to be revitalized in the right way, kind of respecting the past,” Chalmers said.

The Swinton building is not the only one in play.

“This could be a big year for this block. There’s discussions underway for our immediate neighbor here (Bi-Way store), we’re taking on this project, Cards and Coasters just opened next door last month, Melanie Robinson of Eclectic Café is in the midst of her renovations,” said Montgomery.

The new home of Eclectic Cafe

The City recently approved a DTCIP grant to the owners of the Bi-Way store to do a structural survey and there is talk, and hope, something will happen with that store soon. The Downtown Orillia Management Board offices are the thick of things on that block as well.

“Certainly it’s incredible news. It’s only positive to have more people in this block, more people living in this area,” said Lisa Thomson-Roop, manager of the DOMB. She thinks the people living here aspect is the important part.

“It works for other businesses to come and serve those people,” she said. “Empty businesses that are still in this block will absolutely start to fill in.”

The Cheesy Pickup

Kitty-corner, Graham  and Helina  Stark own The Cheezy Pickup. They are new to the area, but things appear to be going well.

“I wish I could say it hasn’t been a struggle, but you know what? we’re still making it work, the doors are still open,” said Graham Stark. He is developing a clientele, and having the library in view helps. Library staff and some of the 1,000 daily users have found their way to the shop.

“We can tell when it’s reading week. I do notice an increase during exams,” said Stark. He likes the idea the Swinton Building is getting a remake and the fact he has other new neighbours.

“I think it’s fabulous. Personally, I eagerly await Melanie and Eclectic Café, Cards and Coasters has been great, pulling people to the other side of West Street, anything that can do that is great,” he said.

The shop is the third, maybe fourth, food outlet to be tried in that location. Why do it again?

“It was kind of a spur of the moment thing. The place was available. The configuration of the space and the location, we had a couple of other different concepts we were considering, but we decided that particular location suited a sandwich shop,” Stark said.

It’s possible the sudden activity in the neighbourhood would have happened without municipal investment in the library, or with grants, but Montgomery has a bit of experience with rejuvenating buildings and neighbourhoods.

“I know working on hundreds of projects like this in numerous communities; consistently the best results are achieved when it’s a public and private partnership,” Montgomery said.

He also believes Matchedash Lofts, Front Street reconstruction, the opening of the Orillia Recreation Centre and waterfront development are only the beginning of more activity to happen in the downtown. Five or ten years from now, nothing will be the same, but at the same time may feel like the old Orillia many love, so long as developers like Montgomery, contractors like DAND, along with people like Geoff Campbell (Matchedash Lofts) continue to set their sights on Orillia, people who want to rejuvenate with respect to what already exists are involved. Fortunately the Downtown Tomorrow plan encourages this.

Swinton Building detail getting face lift

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(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia) Chris Montgomery, Pat Hehn, Mayor Steve Clarke and Bob Willsey at the DTCIP grant presentation.


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