I was talking with a downtown business owner yesterday evening. She, like many, is concerned about the increased number of vacancies downtown over the past few years. We see this every day in the for lease signs that have become all too common in downtown storefronts. “We need to do downtown what you did in Fernwood,” she said to me. And she pointed to the creativity, innovation and bold action that me and others at Fernwood NRG took to address a big vacancy in the heart of our village centre and to revitalize the neighbourhood.
It was early 2005. Fernwood Square, which had once been filled with patrons from the Thin Edge of the Wedge spilling into it, had become eerily quiet. The George and Dragon Pub once a lively neighbourhood gathering place across the street had fewer customers with each passing day. Worst of all, City officials had boarded up the building at the corner of Fernwood and Gladstone and declared it unsafe for habitation.
At the time, I was vice-chair of the board of the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group (Fernwood NRG). I’d gotten involved in the neighbourhood a year earlier because I wanted to put my community building skills to work in the place I lived.
Fernwood NRG’s Executive Director had a bold idea. She proposed that Fernwood NRG buy and revitalize the boarded up building. Until that point Fernwood NRG mostly ran childcare and senior’s programs. But there was a desperate need to create vibrancy in the heart of our neighbourhood. And, if not us, then who?
In August 2005, after complex negotiations and very creative financing (not even our local credit union would give us a mortgage so we ended up negotiating a high-interest mortgage with the seller) the Cornerstone Building came into neighbourhood hands.
It was with ruthless clarity of vision and hard work that a small non-profit turned a derelict building into the beating heart of our neighbourhood. While negotiations were underway to purchase the building, the board of directors put together a business plan. Did we lease the primo corner unit to someone else or open a café ourselves? Did we strata the building and sell off condos on the top floor or did we fill a gap of much-needed affordable housing?
We had a long-term vision. And we also had the passion, dedication, gifts and skills of our neighbours. Working hard together we created the Cornerstone building as a thriving social enterprise, beginning with the popular Cornerstone Café.
It’s an innovative model – Fernwood NRG sells great coffee and food and re-invests the profits in its programs that serve neighbourhood residents. The café was only the beginning of a promising trend for the village centre. Fernwood NRG also signed a long-term lease with Stage restaurant, catering to Belfry Theatre patrons. In addition, the building now houses The Yoga Den and Studio 1313, Canada’s first social-enterprise hair salon.
Upstairs four families moved into the three-bedroom affordable housing units. Between 2004 and 2006, the residential vacancy rate in Victoria was 0.5 per cent, the lowest of all Canada’s metropolitan areas, while the average rent for three-bedroom apartments was $1,126 per month. Fernwood NRG’s Cornerstone Building didn’t just generate revenue for the neighbourhood. It also filled a core social need.
This growth and vibrancy spread beyond the Cornerstone. Across the street, the George and Dragon changed hands, was renovated and opened as the Fernwood Inn. It’s now a lively neighbourhood gathering place. And there’s a colourful local market, Aubergine Grocery, next door.
Today, the heart of Fernwood stands as an example of bold vision coupled with hard work and collaboration. Just take a walk through and you can feel it. Victoria, too, has all the talent it needs to overcome any challenges we face. All that is needed is a deep understanding of the issues, bold leadership, a willingness to think outside the box, and a City Hall that fosters and supports new ideas.
To read more Fernwood NRG and the Cornerstone project, head here.