FORD CITY RESUR­GENCE

Wel­come to The Grand Cantina. Lo­cated along strug­gling Drouil­lard Road in Ford City, the funky res­tau­rant’s own­ers say it’s ‘made to build com­mu­nity’ — and it’s packed every night, just one sign of the come­back be­ing made by the once no­to­ri­ous street.

Windsor Star - - FRONT PAGE - ANNE JARVIS With files from Brian Cross ajarvis@post­media.com

A funky neon sign, big lighted win­dows, mu­sic — and a stream of peo­ple.

Wel­come to The Grand Cantina, a new res­tau­rant on strug­gling Drouil­lard Road in Ford City. It’s packed every night.

“We’re re­ally happy to be here,” said 34-year-old owner Tom Scully. “It’s been re­ally in­spir­ing.” The two-storey brick build­ing at the cor­ner of Whelp­ton Street was built in 1924. It was orig­i­nally a phar­macy. Scully loves the his­tory, the high ceil­ings and the big win­dows that flood with nat­u­ral light. It was in sham­bles when he and his part­ner, chef John Al­varez, took it on.

“It was five or six months of re­ally ex­haust­ing work,” Scully said. They built a cop­per-topped bar. The legs on one of the ta­bles were made from an old air com­pres­sor from the Ford Mo­tor Com­pany plant that built once-thriv­ing Ford City. The chan­de­lier is from flam­boy­ant for­mer Wind­sor lawyer Don Tait’s house.

“What we wanted to cre­ate is an ’80s trop­i­cal vibe,” Scully said. “Think South Beach art deco, bright and fun. Think Don John­son wear­ing a white coat, drink­ing tequila.”

Scully also loves the nar­row street and mod­est red brick store­fronts. It’s like Main Street in the 1950s. It has a sense of place. “It’s a very in­ti­mate set­ting. It was made to build com­mu­nity,” he said.

“There’s a lot of char­ac­ter,” he said.

And he loves the ex­tra­or­di­nary com­mu­nity vol­un­teers who have cleaned up the neigh­bour­hood, painted mu­rals, planted a com­mu­nity gar­den, or­ga­nized festivals and “put their heart and soul into ev­ery­thing.”

“It’s a very close-knit com­mu­nity,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride. “This com­mu­nity re­ally stuck out,” he said, “the com­mu­nity ef­fort to bring it back. This area is ready for a re­ally big resur­gence.” Din­ers come from across the city for The Grand Cantina’s Cen­tral Amer­i­can and Asian street food, from tacos to Korean short ribs. For some, it’s the first time they ’ve been to Ford City.

“I didn’t know it was go­ing to be like this,” they say of the street that used to be known for drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion.

The cor­ner has changed dra­mat­i­cally since The Grand Cantina opened in May. Traf­fic has in­creased. Peo­ple are strolling. It’s vi­brant.

The Grand Cantina is one of 14 new busi­nesses in Ford City in the last two years. There are up­hol­stery, auto re­pair and fi­nan­cial ser­vices. There’s a craft brew­ery, cus­tom screen printer, even an Airbnb. There are plans for an ar­chi­tect, wa­ter sports store and bath­room de­signer.

Va­cant build­ings are be­ing ren­o­vated and oc­cu­pied. Va­cant lots are be­ing bought.

“I can look out my build­ing at night and see four dif­fer­ent build­ings with their lights on do­ing ren­o­va­tions,” said Michael Di­fazio of Re­claim Artistry on Drouil­lard. “When I moved here, it was a ghost town.”

“We’re see­ing a lot of new in­vest­ment coming in,” said Alana Usakov of Ford City Neigh­bour­hood Re­newal. “It’s re­ally great to see.”

Two doors south of The Grand Cantina is the long-va­cant Mor­ris Dry Goods store. Ar­chi­tect Sin­isa Simic and his de­signer wife Ni­cole Bail­largeon will start ren­o­vat­ing soon.

They plan to lo­cate their busi­ness in the back, along with the Dry­goods Col­lec­tive, a shared work space for young, cre­ative en­trepreneurs. They see the re­cessed store­front on Drouil­lard as an ideal lo­ca­tion for a café with an out­door pa­tio. They want a use that’s an “ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in street life.”

They hope to be ready for the Dropped on Drouil­lard street fes­ti­val Sept. 22.

They ’re seek­ing a city brown­field re­de­vel­op­ment grant to help with half the cost of an $11,350 en­vi­ron­men­tal study re­quired by the bank. The fact the bank is will­ing to in­vest on Drouil­lard is an­other pos­i­tive sign.

“Three years ago, the street it­self was pretty much red-lined,” said Simic, mean­ing banks re­fused fi­nanc­ing be­cause the area was con­sid­ered high-risk.

“But just between Jan­uary when we bought it and now, we’ve seen a shift in how the banks are deal­ing with us,” he said. “I think the banks are start­ing to re­al­ize there’s some­thing go­ing on here.” The cost at­tracted Paul Syn­nott. He pays $1,000 a month for a stu­dio for his new in­ter­net ra­dio sta­tion and pod­cast net­work WE Speak and an apart­ment in the back. His build­ing is at least 90 years old. It’s housed all kinds of stores — a jazz club, Frank’s Bil­liards and, in the 1920s, a blind pig. You can see where the bar was. There’s also a gi­ant safe and an es­cape hatch. “It’s re­ally cool,” he said. Syn­nott, too, mar­vels at the long­time res­i­dents who stayed and fought to bring the com­mu­nity back.

“It’s very catchy and in­vig­o­rat­ing,” he said.

The Ford City Busi­ness Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion will launch a mar­ket­ing cam­paign this month to at­tract more new busi­nesses. But they’re not in­ter­ested in big box stores or chain restau­rants. “Oh no,” said BIA di­rec­tor Brid­get Scheuer­man. “We ab­so­lutely don’t want chain stores, big box stores.”

They want in­de­pen­dent en­trepreneurs of­fer­ing orig­i­nal and unique prod­ucts and ser­vices, “the way Ford City used to be,” she said. “You drive down Walker Road, and it’s fran­chise af­ter fran­chise,” said Di­fazio, a BIA board mem­ber. “It’s so life­less. There’s no char­ac­ter. As soon as you put a Tim Hor­tons here, it’s the same as ev­ery­where else. Why would you want that?”

They’re not in­ter­ested in gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, ei­ther.

“We want to fix it,” Scheuer­man said of Ford City ’s rep­u­ta­tion. “But we don’t want it cutesy.”

The cam­paign will be “edgy,” she said, just like Ford City.

It’s not easy re­hab­bing the old build­ings, said Di­fazio, who spent a year fix­ing up his build­ing. But that’s a plus, he says.

“We want some­one will­ing to do the work, make the changes,” he said. “There’s way more pas­sion start­ing this way. That’s what the BIA wants. I don’t want some­one coming here for five months, then leav­ing be­cause they’ve got no skin in the game.”

Many peo­ple are wait­ing for new fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives from the city to de­velop va­cant and un­der­uti­lized sites. A plan is to go to city coun­cil this sum­mer. “What comes with re­vi­tal­iz­ing com­mer­cial ar­eas is re­vi­tal­iza­tion of the sur­round­ing res­i­den­tial ar­eas,” said city plan­ner Kevin Alexan­der.

DAX MELMER

DAX MELMER

The Grand Cantina, owned by John Al­varez, left, and Tom Scully, is one of 14 new busi­nesses in Ford City in the last two years.

NICK BRANCACCIO

Ni­cole Bail­largeon, left, and Sin­isa Simic are ren­o­vat­ing the for­mer Mor­ris Dry Goods store­front on Drouil­lard Road. They plan to house a work space for young cre­ative en­trepreneurs.

DAX MELMER

The Grand Cantina build­ing was orig­i­nally a ’20s phar­macy.

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