Ladysmith Progress Report 2018: Movers and shakers behind downtown revitalization

Ladysmith has had some dramatic moments in its 114 years but none quite like the live-action sequences for Paramount Pictures’ Sonic the Hedgehog shot along 1st Avenue in September.

On the last day of location shooting, crews focused on the fictional “Canyon Grill,” the long-vacant premises formerly known as old Barb’s Kitchen, apparently a brothel in a bygone era.

Behind the Hollywood set, Karen Olenick was busily orchestrating her own drama inside. Her makeshift, tumbledown office was besieged by a flurry of subcontractors hurrying about.

As a new co-owner of the historic building, Olenick does double duty as a general contractor on a total makeover, converting the rundown building into Plantitude, a vegan restaurant, and White Space Living, a furniture boutique and rental accommodation upstairs.

“Talk about work,” she said. “This one’s 110 years old.”

Olenick and her partner are part of a breed of hands-on developers that is transforming downtown Ladysmith while striving to preserve its essential charms. It started through a cottage on Chemainus Road they bought as a getaway from the Lower Mainland, where she worked in residential construction. One day they went for a walk through the downtown.

“And nothing was open,” Olenick said. “We also saw how much real estate was for sale, and we’re, like, ‘What’s going on here?’” They called a realtor and learned they could buy a whole building for less than the cost of an apartment unit in Vancouver. The more they learned, the more they liked.

“We loved the community. We particularly liked all the pride that residents had for the town. It was really neat to see, the uniqueness of the town and feel certain that it has no place to go but up.”

They bought the old building in December expecting to open in August, but the heritage makeover has turned out to be more reconstruction than retrofit. While such projects are known for hidden costs, this one — the first seismic upgrade in Ladysmith — was full of trap doors in terms of building code, engineering and architectural considerations. They wanted to maintain the historic character of the building, but everything above the foundation had to be rebuilt.

“There was nothing to save,” she said. “We have two front doors.”

Olenick praises the town planning department for its effort but feels there needs to be a specific set of regulations if the town wants to protect its heritage. Otherwise, the investment required to bring a building up to standard is too great. Olenick sees the complications as an expression of growth and learning curves in a growing municipality.

“It’s kind of push-pull, push-pull. I truly believe that everyone did the best they could for the town, but it’s just growing so fast.”

Immersed in the chaos of construction, Olenick is determined to see it through to a successful opening the night of Nov. 29.

“We’re taking reservations for the night of Light Up!,” she said confidently.

Across the street, the brick edifice of the Traveler’s Hotel was similarly disguised for the Sonic film production. There, too, a transformation is well along. Six months ago, after considerable thought, Mike Roethe and his family bought the 1913 hotel, which stood vacant for years.

“Our family has done construction before,” said Roethe, who spent years in the hotel trade in China before heading home to B.C. “This is the new part for me: Construction and renovation. The investment is a lot more than people think. It’s a big expense, especially in an old building.”

Nonetheless, the family is excited about the project: “We like the building. We like Ladysmith and it needs a hotel.”

They realized it would be more economical to construct a new hotel, but that wouldn’t fulfill a vision. When the Travellers Hotel opens in winter 2019 or spring 2020, it will give the town a 20-room upscale boutique hotel, one of a kind, with a restaurant and bar in a small-town setting.

“The main thing that attracted us to Ladysmith is its good location on the Island,” Roethe said. “Plus, it’s got that small-town feel.”

All of these elements appeal to metro travellers seeking a retreat from metropolis. Vancouver, Roethe notes, is only 15 minutes away by seaplane. Construction is clearly booming and he finds Ladysmith a straightforward place after years overseas.

“The town is really good about being positive to engage,” he said.

Just down the street, a display of art deco lamps occupied another storefront. Again, the display was strictly for movie-making purposes, all set and no substance. From behind the counter, Mayor Aaron Stone emerged in his everyday role as owner of Uforik Computers.

“I’m going to miss you guys,” he said of the film production crews. “They’ve been great.”

Without hesitation, Stone lists the reasons behind Ladysmith’s commercial renaissance. No. 1, he feels, is that they “set the stage.”

“I know that my role and the role of local government is to set the stage for change,” he said. “My goal is to get out and evangelize that. You need to signal that you’re ready and progressive.”

Last year the town ranked as the third fastest growing in B.C. with a growth rate of 5.9 percent.

“Really, our job in the end is just about quality of life for everybody. First Avenue is just one example of that,” he said. Rocky Creek Road sat fallow for decades before developers seized the opportunity for light industry.

The excitement along main street is palpable, even if it’s behind the scenes.

“It’s been a very, very, very interesting journey,” Olenick said, imagining her reconstruction odyssey as a reality show on HGTV.

“I think we can attract a really good chef,” Roethe said of the remade Travellers Hotel.

“I’ve worked with a lot of Michelin star chefs who would kill to have the luxury of being able to drive out to the Cowichan Valley, for example, and select their ingredients. There’s talk of a microbrewery going in as well, which I think is fantastic. I know some people are looking around.”

Others are doing more than looking around. Bill Jackson, owner of Shar-Kare Feeds and Pet Supplies, is expanding and adding a large garden centre. Neck of the Woods General Store opened its doors on Roberts Street in June, adding to the colourful array of shops across from City Hall. Slava Govurov just opened a new Panago Pizza outlet, adding to his South Nanaimo operation.

“I saw the opportunity in Ladysmith because I think there’s quite a bit of growth competition-wise,” Govurov explained. “The population is lower, but the demand is higher than supply for this type of business. It has great potential for the future.”

His first two weeks were phenomenal, probably double what was expected.

Sisters Jennifer and Tara Sweder initially planned to redevelop the century-old downtown home long known as Buckingham’s Browsorium as an electric vehicle dealership. The pair is always on the lookout for opportunities in development projects. Consulting with residents, however, sent them in a different direction.

“They started to tell us that residential housing is in need,” Jennifer said.

Now a completely refurbished multi-family building, its three rental units are sure to be snapped up. Jennifer is clear about what drew her to the community.

“My heart is here,” she said. “It’s such a nice town. People know each other, and everybody gets along.”

From the mayor’s perspective, it’s a nuanced approach to growth that ensures it stays that way.

“The key message is that we’re supporting growth that helps retain community,” Stone said.

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