If you build it, they will come.
Downtown Windsor is like an aging prizefighter who has taken substantial knocks but has not gone down for the count. Thirty years ago, the city core was the centre of twentysomething bar/nightclub nirvana. With young people in nearby Michigan unable to legally drink alcohol before the age of twenty-one, American fun-seekers poured into Windsor where the drinking age was only nineteen. Owning a bar in downtown Windsor at that time was like having a license to print money.
“Downtown Windsor used to be one of the best in the country,” says Windsor City Councillor Renaldo Agostino. He knows of what he speaks. Renaldo came from Toronto with his twin brother, Remo, in 1993 to attend school. Over the years, Renaldo has owned or operated many successful businesses in the core, including the Windsor Music Café and the Boom Boom Room.
He continues: “In the mid-1990s, we got budgets from beer and liquor companies that were more than many other cities. Our sales were astronomical. We had a downtown core visited by 15,000 to 20,000 people per week.”
As with all “too good to be true” scenarios, the gravy train finally came to its natural stopping point. Every boom time comes with a price. Downtown Windsor’s reputation took a hit, and the city core became something of a No Man’s Land to people uninterested in club life—which was most of the rest of the city.
A group of local entrepreneurs are unwilling to let the downtown’s doldrums continue. In fact, depending on who you speak to, the Windsor core is fertile ground for new business opportunities.
Vern Myslichuk, owner/operator of BetterMade Cabinets opened the La Vern’s Market, in the summer of 2021, on the corner of University and Pelissier, bringing a much needed grocery store to the area.
“I am a big believer in: ‘If you want something to happen you have to make it happen,’” Vern says. “I’m not the type of person to say, ‘Downtown will be great,’ and then do nothing about it, myself. That wouldn’t sit well with me. So, I started investing in downtown and saw that it made a difference, saw people from The Hive, and connected with a group of people with the same mindset.”
A component to the planning that was missing thirty years ago is a sense of balance. In Windsor downtown’s heyday in the 1990s, entertainment consisted of bars, clubs, and more bars and clubs.
“There’s a new generation of young people who are beyond the bar and club scene of the ’90s,” says Anthony Maggio. “I grew up in that bar scene, and the new generation doesn’t want that anymore. Their taste is different. The young people who are moving into apartment units downtown want restaurant/lounges. The nightclub scene is not what it used to be. It’s a different demographic.”
“The difference between then and now,” Renaldo says, “is a better balance of bars and nightclubs, along with residential, retail, restaurants, and other amenities. We are seeing the beginnings of this residential shift downtown, people actually coming here to live. They’ll need groceries, drug stores. It’s a perfect storm. All these things mixed in to one are what gives you a banging downtown!”
And the amenities are coming. La Vern’s Market has been open for more than a year. The owner of Oven 360 has opened Cucina 360 in the historic building that once housed Ye Olde Steak House, at 58 Chatham Street. The new restaurant offers traditional Italian cuisine, and seats up to 95 people.
“Our group has put a lot of time and effort into redeveloping Chatham Street,” says Anthony Maggio of St. Clair Rhodes Development. “Arrangements are being made on a frequent basis to repurpose iconic locations in the core. The revitalization of downtown has begun.”
There is certainly some civic pride at the center of resuscitating Windsor’s core, but more than that, it makes good business sense. There is money to be made.
“The La Vern’s Market project started eighteen months ago because of what I saw happening downtown,” Vern says. “I wanted to get in with the grocery store now because there will be thirty-eight residential units going into that building. Just servicing those units will bring in some big numbers. Not only that, everything around it. Just recently, I noticed a restaurant opened on Chatham, a bistro opened on Pelissier. Neither of them was there a few weeks ago.”
Vern thinks it is a good time for businesses to locate downtown. “People are getting in now, at good rates, and they will be thankful,” he says. Vern believes that in five years, it will be difficult finding space.
Renaldo, who has downtown Windsor in his blood, says: “We just finished WIFF (Windsor International Film Festival). It was an incredible success. These people work hard. They have their hearts in downtown Windsor. I am working to bring people together. We’re a team, not individuals, and that’s what will make ours one of the best downtowns in Canada.”
He continues: “There is a new sense of unity when it comes to city council, wanting to see our downtown get better. That’s the vibe I get from the other councillors. They ask ‘What do you need? Whatever you need for downtown, we’re there for you?’ This really motivates me. We’re trying to help as many people as we can.”
There are still bumps in the road. Some entrepreneurs wish there was less “red tape” involved with opening businesses downtown. They believe the process could be more streamlined, and would like to see the City of Windsor tangibly encourage businesses to locate downtown with tax breaks that benefits both landlords and tenants.
Renaldo sums up the feelings of many involved with the revitalization of the Windsor core: “We need to work hard and get on the same page. Indecision is worse than a wrong decision. Let’s choose a path forward. The precursors of what is coming all indicate a bright future ahead for downtown Windsor.”