Bringing life back to Gerrard & Woodbine

[local]1[/local]Kate Tennier is intent on breathing new life into a once-bustling commercial district at Gerrard Street and Woodbine Avenue.

And, she’s bringing her whole Upper Beach neighbourhood on board to help her do it.

The 16-year area resident recently formed the Gerrard Woodbine Neighbourhood Association to create a grassroots Shop Local campaign that fosters a renewal of the area’s main commercial strip, between Devon and Bowmore roads.

The initiative is called I’m a Local. For $20 a year, households have access to deals and promotions at local participating businesses. While the collected funds will go to small street beautification projects, Tennier says that’s not the main goal of the initiative.

The intent is to build a network of residents and businesses and, sometime down the road, attract more merchants to an area on the upswing.

“The area’s picking up and yet we all think that it has even more potential than what it’s showing,” says Tennier.

Decades ago, the street was lined with a bakery, green grocers, a meat market, and a tailor, says Tennier over a cup of coffee at The Bandit, a coffeehouse and relatively new addition to the street.

Longtime residents of the neighbourhood — in the late 19th century it was the Toronto Golf Club — have told her sometime in the 1970s the shops began to close, and buildings became rundown.

“The feeling is that it was not the car, but the second car that was the kiss of death for a lot of neighbourhoods,” says Tennier, pointing to the evolution of the one-stop, big box shopping phenomenon. “It’s very typical of what’s happened in small towns throughout all of Ontario, where the shopping went further away.”

But in recent years, Upper Beach, a neighbourhood nestled between Danforth Avenue and Queen Street East, has begun to show a renewed ecosystem, as Tennier calls it, in terms of storefront retail shopping and renovation. She points to newer establishments like McCarthy’s Irish Pub and 1999 Piano Studio. The former is a regular hangout for many of its patrons, while the latter, once a variety store, was renovated and now features a grand piano on its main floor. The owners for both ventures are locals.

It’s businesses like these that are getting on board with the idea of owning their neighbourhood and trying to improve on it as a collective whole.

For her part, Tennier says she is not paying lip service to the Shop Local cause.

“There are I’d say eight businesses along this strip I routinely use and not just in a token way,” says the homemaker.

One of her regular haunts is The Bandit, a funky and relaxed space more akin to the coffee joints one would find along Queen West or in Little Italy.

[attach]5713[/attach]Kirk Stratakos, who opened The Bandit last September, is wholly on board with Tennier’s idea because he too feels the area is primed for renewal. He bought the two-storey building in 2010 with the intent of using it as an income property. Not terribly inspired by the ventures prospective renters pitched for the space, Stratakos opened the coffeehouse with business partner Tracy Loyson.

Stratakos said he did his research before buying, and found upward potential.

Canvassing the streets around Gerrard and Woodbine, he saw renovation lawn signs dotting every other property, indicating residents were looking to increase the value of their detached homes.

“Those are all good signs for a neighbourhood,” he said. “It’s not like everything’s decrepit or going to waste.”

Despite the positives, Stratakos admits the commercial area needs more investment, and wider appeal.

“There’s enough local demand to support small neighbourhood businesses,” he says, estimating 90 percent of his clientele are walk-ins from a distance of not more than a kilometre.

Beyond new biz sprouting, Tennier says there’s an appetite for change here, as made evident by the turnout at the association’s launch meeting at the Naval Club.

To her surprise, 60 residents and business owners showed up. Now, Tennier has 30 volunteers helping her count houses on the streets in preparation for their shop local blitz. She estimates about 38 businesses have agreed to sport an “I’m a Local” decal on their windows and offer discounts or deals to members.

Tennier says she wants to be the catalyst for bigger community change.

“I said I’ll put a certain amount of effort in and throw it out to the community — if I don’t get anyone showing up then I won’t do it, but I was overwhelmed by the response.”

The official kick-off of the Gerrard Woodbine Neighbourhood Association I’m A Local initiative is Sat., June 9 from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. at the Naval Club (1910 Gerrard St. E.).