When Ian Holol opened Smoke’s Poutinerie in downtown Oshawa six years ago, people told him he was crazy.
“It’s a big investment. People were always like ‘Why would you choose downtown Oshawa? You invested $300,000 in a restaurant that isn’t going to last,’ he says. “But I kind of knew it was going to last. It’s like putting something really exciting in the shittiest part of town.”
Other businesses in the area may not have had the same success as Holol. Since last year, he says Smokes’ business has grown five per cent.
“We’re open late on weekends, so we get that bar crowd, and there aren’t really any other options for food except us,” Holol says. “We had to be ready for downtown, so even though we may have been something new, people expect nothing but the best.”
Holol is part of the renewal plans of the downtown, kickstarted by the Business Improvement Area (BIA).
Revitalization plans are to continue despite the search for a new leader.
Garth Johns, executive director, announced his intention to leave the position to pursue another opportunity with the Brock Township. Johns made the announcement at a recent Oshawa City Council meeting.
The BIA is focused on improving the downtown experience for residents and visitors.
Since the inception of the BIA in 1974, more than $120 million has been invested into the downtown area, according to the BIA.
Johns says the investments have been positive first steps but there is still more work to be done.
“We need to create an atmosphere where people want to check out what is happening downtown before automatically going elsewhere. We haven’t been successful in that regard yet,” says Johns.
He adds if the plans to beautify downtown are to continue being successful, the BIA will need to continue working with its vendors, businesses, and council after he leaves.
Downtown Oshawa is home to more than 50 eateries, shops and more than 20 entertainment facilities, according to the BIA’s directory.
Johns says a stigma exists in the downtown area. He attributes it to the area’s relationship with the media.
“When I first arrived, I was told that the press was always badmouthing downtown,” Johns says. “We changed that by building a positive relationship with key players in all media outlets. They started printing more positive stories about us and that starts us going down the right road.”
He says issues include lack of upkeep on event calendars and city social media as a whole.
“If we want to fulfill our role as being the number one cheerleader, then we need to be a presence in terms of social media,” Johns says.
He says this can be an easier task with a switch in ideology for the downtown’s makeup, from manufacturing an industry to commercialism.
Rick Kerr, regional and city councillor in Oshawa, is a director on the BIA board and works alongside Johns in many of the organizations plans.
“In the old days, think about how a village was created and think of what made it successful. There has to be enough people living there to draw needed business,” says Kerr.
He says he has a vision surrounding a nine-point plan for the downtown area. His plans include a grocery store, improved parking, office space, and increased residential spaces. Despite all of these plans, Kerr says there is an uncontrollable factor.
“None of [these steps] will make any difference if we don’t have feet on the streets,” Kerr says.
Holol says the issues can be resolved, in part, once the historic Genosha hotel opens its doors.
“The Genosha is getting revitalized, that’s supposed to be done this summer, so I think once that’s done, this whole area is going to explode,” says Holol.