The Fillmore Meets The Shining: A History of Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom

The Fillmore Meets The Shining: A History of Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom

March 28, 2019

Courtesy: The Commodore Ballroom

By: David McPherson

Venues are a mirror into a city’s past, present, and future. They witness and document the societal changes that happen around them while concurrently adding to a locale’s history. As author Aaron Chapman, who was born and raised in Vancouver says: “They are a wonderful cultural barometer, showing us where we’ve been and where we are going.”

Chapman knows historic music venues; he wrote the book on Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. From big band and swing to punk rock, pop, jazz and blues, Vancouver’s most famous (and infamous) room has played host to the greats of every genre of music. No wonder in 2011 Billboard named it one of the Top 10 most influential venues in North America (the only Canadian spot cited) along with such iconic spots as San Francisco’s Fillmore and New York’s Bowery Ballroom. A fixture on Granville Street for nearly 90 years, the venue now hosts more than 150 public events each year — entertaining approximately 120,000 guests annually.

The Commodore was built on beer money (from the Reifel family’s breweries) and since has survived on passion, acute business sense, and a wee bit of luck. The irony of how the building was originally financed is not lost as more than a few brews have been swilled on that horsehair dance floor over its history – illegally in the early decades until it finally got a liquor license in 1969 – and legally ever since.

Billed in the local daily that day as “Vancouver’s Latest Attraction,” the venue opened as the Commodore Cabaret on Wednesday, December 3, 1930. Despite a few blips and hard times (it closed for three years from 1996-1999 before House of Blues revived it) 90 years on, the venue is still going strong — serving up live music and hosting local events six nights a week. There have been a lot of memorable rock ‘n’ roll shows at the venue since the Vancouver institution opened, but in the eyes of many, there is one that stands out. During punk’s heyday, The Clash took to the Commodore stage, on January 31, 1979. It was the first North American show for the English quartet. Forty years on it remains a seminal moment in the venue’s history.

Just ask Brad Merritt. The bassist for Vancouver’s beloved 54-40 was there.

“Bo Diddley and a local all-female punk trio (The Dishrags) opened,” he recalls. “That was a crazy show! I was dead centre in the middle of the dance floor and halfway through the show, some guy threw a beer can backwards and it hit me in the face. I had a dent in my forehead for nearly five years, but it was a badge of honour!”

The Clash show was not Merritt’s first at the fabled club. On December 2, 1978, he was 18, and saw a sold-out Blondie concert. That night was just as crazy and just as memorable.

“About midway through the show, every table had 6-8 people standing up; they all took the red tablecloths off and started whipping them around. It was one of the rowdiest shows I had ever seen in my life … that was my introduction to the Commodore Ballroom.”

When Merritt started 54-40 out of high school, along with buddy Neil Osborne, their goal was to one day play The Commodore, maybe open up for one of the groups they admired. They’ve more than surpassed that now. 54-40 holds the record of playing the Commodore more than 50 times and counting. Their Thanksgiving weekend gig (slated for October 11 this year) has become an annual tradition Vancouverites and long-time fans anticipate. The band even recorded a live DVD (This Is Here This Is Now, 2005) at the Vancouver landmark.

Merritt still recalls the first time he hit the storied stage and how nervous he was. The year was 1982. “We were part of a four-band local promotion, which included Images in Vogue, Moev, and I can’t recall the other band. There were 1,000 [people] in the room. We went on first and it was incredibly exciting.”

54-40 headlined for the first time after the release of its self-titled 1986 release (later known as the “Green Album”). The Wooden Tops from England opened. Though it’s been more than 30 years since the band’s name lit up the marquee on Granville for the first time, the allure of playing this hometown venue never fades.

54-40 Live at The Commodore Ballroom. Credit: Toni Horncastle.

“It’s still special for us and for the people who come,” Merritt explains. “It’s a celebration: for us, for our fans, and for music in Vancouver … Vancouverites take special pride in the venue.”

Merritt, along with other musicians and patrons, can thank Drew Burns for The Commodore most music lovers now know and love. The bar’s modern era took hold when Burns purchased the lease in 1969. The entrepreneur obtained a liquor license, renovated the venue and changed the name from the Commodore Cabaret to the Commodore Ballroom; the first rock act he booked was Detroit’s Mitch Ryder, who took to the famed Granville stage in July 1971. While the place was licensed for 1,000, they often crammed a lot more people into the room. Since Mitch Ryder, the Ballroom has hosted a who’s who of rock royalty: everyone from Tina Turner and Patti Smith to U2 and Tom Petty. For all these bands, playing the Commodore meant something – they all respected the room – as author Chapman reveals.

“I spoke to Benmont Tench [keyboardist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers] for my book and he said it was a big deal for them the first time they played there in 1978 … they knew about it!”

Besides writing the definitive book on The Commodore, Chapman has also played there, with one band or another, 25 times. “You are aware of it before you ever go in for the first time,” he explains of the venue’s gravitas. “If you grew up in Vancouver, your parents or grandparents most likely went to a dance there or saw some music there. It has seen every era of pop music – from big band to people slam dancing – not every city has a place like that – we are a bit spoiled.”

Kevin Kane (guitarist for The Grapes of Wrath, and more recently also a member of The Northern Pikes) has played The Commodore countless times. Growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia, in the late 1970s, he subscribed to The Georgia Straightto keep abreast of the burgeoning punk scene. “I kept seeing that all my favourite bands were always playing there, so the Commodore always held a mythic status for me,” he says.

Kane’s first time in the Commodore was when he was still in high school. He caught a ride with a friend into the city to do some import record shopping when the pair learned The Cure were at the Club doing its sound check.

“My friend and I plucked up our courage, walked up the stairs from Granville Street into the venue, and parked ourselves in a couple of chairs off in the shadows, hoping to not be seen,” he recalls. “The band were setting up their own gear and I watched transfixed as Robert Smith pulled his Jazzmaster from a road case. Smith then saw my friend and I, gave us a welcoming smile and wave, and in the seconds it took to decide if we should run over and introduce ourselves as a couple of 16-year-olds who just wanted to hear our favourite band sound check, we were spotted by security and ejected!”

Jay Semko, Kane’s bandmate in The Northern Pikes, gives us the final word of what makes The Commodore Ballroom so special:

“When the energy in the crowd reaches the ‘magic zone,’ there is no better place in Canada to be for live music,” he concludes. “The silhouettes of heads bobbing up and down on the horsehair floor, the timeless vibe when you walk through the doors – whether grooving in the audience or grooving on the stage, there is something about the Commodore that has always had a profound effect on me; it’s The Shiningmeets The Fillmore, and in the best way imaginable.”

Learn more about The Commodore Ballroom at or via Aaron Chapman’s book: Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom.


From Portuguese Club to Winnipeg Music Mecca: A History of the West End Cultural Centre

From Portuguese Club to Winnipeg Music Mecca: A History of the West End Cultural Centre

May 06, 2019

West End Cultural Centre c.1995. Credit: Ava Kobrinsky. Mural By: Larry Spittle.

By: David McPherson

Luke Doucet and his girlfriend got caught with their pants down in the boiler room here one New Year’s Eve when he was 17. A teenage Romi Mayes drank Gowan’s beer in the green room here, while the JUNO-award winning artist covered “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The common thread: one of Winnipeg’s most treasured venues: the West End Cultural Centre (WECC).

For more than three decades, the WECC has been a warm-sounding room and a place to foster the Winnipeg music scene. Many local artists—from Mayes and Doucet to bands like The Watchmen and The Weakerthans—got their start at the all ages venue. Mayes credits the WECC for the early opportunities she had to share her songs with a wider audience.

“The first time I was on stage at the West End Cultural Centre I was 15-years-old,” recalls Mayes. “Mitch [Podolak] was in charge and there were commonly big folk artists from across the globe sharing that stage. I remember being nervous to join the roster of the talent that was performing there all the time.”

Since her teenage debut, Mayes has shared the WECC stage many times with renowned acts, as well as enjoyed many memorable shows there as a fan. Heck, she even had her wedding social there. The singer-songwriter can’t say enough good words about this hometown hotspot.

“Not only is it a music venue, but it’s also a team of creative curators being inventive with themes and show ideas to celebrate our local music scene,” Mayes comments. “In recent years, with the artful artistic direction of Jason Hooper and its hard working staff and volunteers, the West End Cultural Centre has become a pinnacle in nurturing and hosting community projects to help the area and improve the neighbourhood and develop productivity for its area residents.”

Adds fellow Winnipeg songwriter Scott Nolan: “It’s our Mother Church. It may not be as grand as the Grand Ole Opry, but it’s fitting for our town.”

Flash back to 1987. That’s when this musical shrine was born. An eye for spotting talent and for supporting artists is Mitch Podolak’s raison d’être. While running the Winnipeg Folk Festival in the 1970s, the champion of the arts and his wife Ava Kobrinsky frequently drove by the West End neighbourhood where the Portuguese Cultural Centre [and previously a series of churches] was located at Sherbrook Street and Ellice Avenue. The talk, during these drives, often turned to the buildings’ potential.

“I thought it would make a great combo of what is now The Cultch (formally the Vancouver East Cultural Centre) and the Cotabi Cabaret in Sonoma, California,” says Podolak, 71, who is still active in the folk community running Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous, a not-for-profit arts organization that creates new performance opportunities for French and English speaking musicians and audiences in rural, remote and urban, communities across Canada.

Following Podolak’s departure from the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the music lover and his life partner made a pit stop in Vancouver. While there, a friend in the know back in Manitoba tipped them off that the Portuguese club was selling its building and the prospective buyer was going to turn it into a furniture warehouse. That was all the fuel Mitch needed. He picked up the phone, made a call, and offered to buy the building. The rest, as they say — thankfully for the Winnipeg arts community — is musical history as the WECC was born.

Spirit of the West was the first headlining act at the WECC. The Vancouver band played a pair of sold-out shows in October 1987. The following month, the venue hosted 30 events, including a gig by legendary blues singer Taj Mahal. While primarily a music venue, the WECC is a non-profit, charitable organization that promotes local, national, and international artists by fostering artistic development.

Thirty years on, everyone from Odetta, John Prine, and Stan Rogers to Jann Arden and Lyle Lovett have stepped on the West End Cultural Centre’s stage, making a lasting connection with Winnipeg audiences. Not only is the venue an incubator for local talent in the Peg, and an intimate venue for international touring acts – from folk to alt-country and punk to indie rock, it’s also a place for young minds, who might not otherwise have a chance, to create. The WECC offers free drop in music lessons on Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons where local artists mentor and teach neighbourhood kids as part of a successful drop-in program.

“We are a charity so that is what we do – foster that creativity in people,” says Executive Director Jason Hooper, who started out as WECC’s bar manager 10 years ago. “The West End Cultural Centre also hosts a street festival every June and free concerts for schools in the neighbourhood. That makes us a special place. Not a lot of venues have that time or resources to do that, but being a charity makes that possible.”

The WECC’s founding statement speaks to this community commitment to “make sure people will get involved, not in some peripheral way but with their hearts and guts and brains.” Hooper has been at the helm of the not-for-profit for the past decade. Some of his favourite shows at the WECC, which he attended as a teen newly arrived in the city in the 90s, were the punk-rock matinees on Saturdays. “For five-dollars, you could come down and see five bands,” he recalls. “I saw bands like Guy Smiley, Propagandhi, and meatrack. The venue was a really important part of the local punk scene.”

When Hooper started working at the WECC in 2009 the venue had just undergone an extensive renovation and reconstruction, thanks to a $4 million capital campaign; several neighbourhood houses were bought and razed to expand the Hall. Hawksley Workman, whose new record (Median Age Wasteland) was released this past February, was lucky enough to be the artist who reopened the new WECC. The songwriter says just like a best friend, it’s a place you can always count on.

“The venue always treats people right,” Workman concludes. “You play across this country long enough and you make a mental list of the places you can really rely on and the WECC is one of those. Live music is at its core. It has a theatre feel versus a club feel; it’s the perfect hybrid and people come to shows there with their hearts open.”

The West End Cultural Centre has won the Western Canadian Music Award for Venue of the Year six times since 2002. To view a list of past performers visit:

History in the making at Hamilton Golf and Country Club

History in the making at Hamilton Golf and Country Club

Hamilton Golf and Country Club, host to this June’s RBC Canadian Open, has a storied past, a bright future and a veteran superintendent leading the way. 

April 2019 | David McPherson 

Hamilton Golf and Country Club
Hamilton Golf and Country Club in Ancaster, Ontario, should be at its greenest glory June 6-9 when it welcomes the RBC Canadian Open, previously contested in late July. Photos courtesy of Hamilton Golf and Country Club

“If you have the money to spend, there is no reason why you should not have one of the finest golf courses in America.”

— Harry Shapland Colt, in a letter to Hamilton Golf and Country Club prior to his visit in 1914

Famed British golf course architect Harry Colt, whose work includes such courses as Royal Portrush and Muirfield, predicted more than a century ago that Hamilton Golf and Country Club in Ancaster, Ontario, would become a special place. One hundred and five years on, as some of the best golfers in the world will see come June when the facility hosts the RBC Canadian Open for the sixth time, that vision has become reality. Hamilton is not only one of the oldest clubs in the Americas, but it also perennially ranks as one of the top five courses in Canada.

Hamilton opened in 1894 and has since hosted the Canadian Open five times. The first, in 1919, featured two of the most legendary names in golf — Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet — but it was J. Douglas Edgar who made history at the event, winning by 16 strokes, a PGA Tour record that still stands as the largest margin of victory. The other players who have won the Canadian Open at Hamilton are Tommy Armour (1930), Bob Tway (2003), Jim Furyk (2006) and Scott Piercy (2012).

For the past three decades, Rhod Trainor, CGCS, has called Hamilton home. Trainor arrived at the club in 1990. This year will be his last. Is there a better way to wrap up a successful 30-year tenure than hosting his fourth PGA Tour event on the centennial of the year the club first hosted Canada’s national open?

Circle the date: RBC Canadian Open

Last July, when the PGA Tour announced a shift in Canadian Open scheduling — from late July to early June — a smile crept onto the faces of most Canadian golf fans, especially Laurence Applebaum, CEO of Golf Canada. Following the announcement, Applebaum said, “The new 2019 date change is a clear demonstration of our combined commitment to the game and Canada’s national championship. This exciting change will inject tremendous energy into the RBC Canadian Open and make Canadian golf better.”

1919 Canadian Open
The gallery walks from the No. 11 tee during the 1919 Canadian Open at Hamilton Golf and Country Club. J. Douglas Edgar won the event by 16 strokes, which remains a PGA Tour record for victory margin.

Scott Piercy Canadian Open
Eventual champion Scott Piercy heads toward the 18th green during the 2012 RBC Canadian Open at Hamilton Golf and Country Club.

The June date for the event — June 6-9, sandwiched between the Memorial and the U.S. Open — is better for attracting more top players and is ideal for achieving prime playing conditions. When the new date was announced, another person whose smile widened a bit was Trainor.

“I love the date,” the 37-year GCSAA member says. “Early June is when we have some of our best conditions. I remember reading an article years ago about why the U.S. Open is always held in the first two weeks of June, and it said because it was often hosted at the top private courses in the Northeast, and that is when their course conditions and weather are the best. Going forward, this is a much better date for the Canadian Open.”

While the date is great for the turf, from an execution standpoint, it will be a race against time and Mother Nature to get everything ready. “It will be a mad scramble for all the setup people,” Trainor says.

A head start on tournament prep

Early preparation for hosting Canada’s sole PGA Tour event started last fall. Trainor and his crew completed edging on all the course’s aging bunkers, a practice that’s normally done in spring.

“We did that to allow for a little grow-back along our bunker edges to put our best face on for the tournament,” Trainor says. “Edging was also a little more aggressive than normal, as we, in many cases, went beyond the designed edge to cut back to mature turf. This will allow the bunkers to have more visual appeal. Barring any major rainstorms, the bunkers should look and play great for the tournament.”

Hamilton Golf
The Hamilton crew aerated and sand-filled greens — including this one on No. 7 — last fall. The staff faces an abbreviated timeline to get the course ready for the Canadian Open in early June, which superintendent Rhod Trainor says “is usually when the course begins to wake up.”

Trainor admits nothing short of a complete renovation can remedy some of the long-term bunker issues he and his team face. And that might just be on the horizon: Trainor is hopeful the membership will approve moving forward with a master plan — or at least parts of it — prepared by Martin Ebert of Mackenzie and Ebert (see “Dreaming of a renovation at Hamilton Golf and Country Club,” below).

In spring, there won’t be much time to do many in-depth preparations other than the normal spring cleanup. “The first week of June is usually when the course begins to wake up, so there will be little time to recover from any extra activities or winter damage,” Trainor explains.

Preparing to put the course to bed last fall, knowing the reduced timeline to have the course ready for the Canadian Open, Trainor and his team also took extra precautions with expanded treatment on roughs for winter disease. “Normally we just treat greens, tees and fairways,” he says. “This winter, we also added to our greens cover inventory to ensure all sensitive turf on greens was covered.”

Wide-open spaces

Since the last time Hamilton hosted the Canadian Open in 2012, there have been few changes to the course aside from a massive tree removal program. That recommendation, which Trainor had been giving the club for 20 years, finally came to fruition in the spring of 2014 after a winter of discontent that saw the greens at many private courses near Hamilton die. The course removed nearly 1,000 mature trees, including silver maple, willow and ash.

“The tree removal has totally changed and improved our turf conditions,” Trainor says. “The views across the course are also different. You now see the true topography of the land the way Harry Colt saw it 100 years ago. Back in 1914 when Colt came here, he didn’t look for land that was forested. He looked for open land. He built this course on a big open area, and it has since changed. I love what David Oatis from the USGA, who consults for us, says about this: ‘We’ve taken an 18-hole landscape and made it 18 one-hole landscapes.’

“The pros and the fans will notice this,” Trainor adds. “The feedback every spring when members come back and see the course again with these extensive tree removals we’ve done has been more than positive. … It’s always, ‘Wow!’”

Hamilton Golf Country Club
A drone’s eye view of the 18th fairway at Hamilton Golf and Country Club.

When it comes to preparing for a professional event, Trainor is already well versed in what to do and what to expect, considering he has been at the helm for three previous Canadian Opens. Many of the contractors — from the security to the tent setup companies — are the same, so they all know their role and the timelines involved in staging such a large-scale event. The PGA Tour is also familiar with the course.

That said, Trainor and his team do not plan to rest on their laurels.

“Preparation all comes down to agronomics and timing,” Trainor says. “We added a little extra fertilizer last fall. We have beautiful growing conditions in the spring. Since the tournament arrives in the middle to end of our spring flush of growth, we should have some substantial rough.”

The key to Hamilton truly challenging the best players in the world is that it must be dry. If there is any significant rain leading up to the tournament, Trainor says the course will lose some of its edge and its key defenses, and the PGA Tour players will be firing at pins. “When our greens and fairways get wet,” he says, “they don’t dry out quickly.”

Come tournament time, Trainor will have a crew of about 25 full- and part-time staff. About 50 volunteers, mostly fellow greenkeepers from surrounding courses pitching in their time and expertise, will complement this core staff.

“Everything we do in the spring will be geared to that tournament and also managing the letdown once the tournament has left town,” he says. “I’ve already talked about that a bit with my staff. After the tournament, because we still have a long golf season ahead of us, I’ll need my team to get rallied up for that again, and that will be a challenge.”

Dreaming of a renovation at Hamilton Golf and Country Club

Rhod Trainor hopes that by the time his fellow industry colleagues are reading this story, Hamilton Golf and Country Club’s membership will have voted on and approved the comprehensive master plan prepared by Martin Ebert of Mackenzie and Ebert.

Beyond hosting the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open, the prospect of this renovation is what excites Trainor most. He says the plan will be presented to the membership in April or May, and if it gets approved, work could begin as early as September of this year.

“At this point, it boils down to two options: a complete course renovation, including a new irrigation system, new greens and renovated bunkers, or doing just the greens,” Trainor says. “The irrigation system is 30 years old, and the greens are just soil-based, so they have very little drainage.

“Our greens have always been the worst part of our course. They are too steep, and there is really nothing about them anymore that is ‘Harry Colt.’ If I only had one choice, I would do the greens.”

Rhod Trainor

Right: Rhod Trainor, CGCS, who has been the superintendent at Hamilton Golf and Country Club since 1990 and will host his fourth RBC Canadian Open at the club in June.

The severity of the slope on the greens makes it difficult to find suitable pin positions that are not overly penal, especially when the PGA Tour arrives and requires five possible pin locations per green. Because the greens are Poa annua, they are also more susceptible to disease, especially during the unpredictable southern Ontario winters. Trainor says the course spends between $20,000 and $25,000 annually in greens cover management as a preventive maintenance strategy. With brand-new bentgrass greens, covers would not be necessary.

“It will be interesting to see what the membership does,” Trainor says. “All the old crowd, (they) don’t want to do anything. … They want to just take the golf course as it is to the grave with them, whereas the young guys want new greens now.”

Ebert has prepared a hole-by-hole master plan that includes the history of everything that has been done at the club over the past 100 years. “He has given us a complete storyboard of where we are currently and a compelling argument to redo the greens,” Trainor says. The fact that the club is set to host the RBC Canadian Open again in 2023 is a definite selling point for the membership to approve Ebert’s master plan.

While Trainor will say goodbye to his home away from home for the past three decades at the end of the 2019 season, he plans to stay active in the turf and golf course maintenance industry. And he hopes, if the Hamilton renovation gets approved, that he can offer his services to the club in some capacity. “I’m not retiring from the business,” the 64-year-old says. “I’m just retiring from the club. I just won’t grow grass here anymore.”





From Big Band Dance Hall to Lakeside Musical Landmark: A History of Muskoka’s The Kee to Bala

From Big Band Dance Hall to Lakeside Musical Landmark: A History of Muskoka’s The Kee to Bala

July 07, 2019

Picture this: a sultry summer night, circa early-to-mid 1990s. The exact date is not important. It’s all part of the magic and the lore. Joey Ramone, with his trademark black leather jacket and tight blue jeans slinks out of a rented white van. Sweat drips from his furrowed brow. He gazes at the tall pines and the beauty of this ever-changing Group of Seven painting come to life as he takes the last drag of his cigarette. The place: a tiny Muskoka town. The venue: The Kee to Bala. Far from his New York home, the skinny punk rocker is definitely out of place. No matter. He is here to spread his punk-rock gospel to Canadian cottagers. He steps into the club, removes his jacket, and hangs it on a rack in the cramped backstage area. A couple of hours later, Ramone steps onto that storied stage. With his trademark 1-2-3-4, the band launch into a spirited evening that added to the already legendary status of this venue.

This Ramones moment is just one of hundreds of snapshots in time that have played out in Ontario cottage country at The Kee — the big wooden barn structure on Lake Muskoka that is a summer tradition equal to barbecues and road trips for many Southern Ontario music lovers.

Sue McCallum, who was doing publicity for MCA Records at the time, recalls this memorable gig. Her beat-up Honda was decorated with stickers of this seminal New York punk band. She was a fan before she got into the business, so doing publicity for them was a dream come true. “They didn’t even know what cottage country meant,” says McCallum of this event. “I also remember Johnny [Ramone] asking me that day, and it has haunted me for the rest of my life, ‘what is it about our music that you like?’ I froze and stammered out, ‘it’s the songs.’”

Long before there were roads to Bala, it was a whistle stop for Big Bands to perform their songs. Everyone travelled by steamship in the early days; later, they arrived by train. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Guy Lombardo and Tommy Dorsey all played in Bala at The Kee’s predecessor Dunn’s Pavilion where you could fetch a ticket for $2.50.

Flash back to 1929. That’s when Gerry Dunn purchased the property with the idea to build a venue that would attract small orchestras to the area. Dunn hoped to capitalize on the increased tourist traffic expected with the completion of rail service right to the village of Bala. One of the earliest slogans for the new venue was “Where All of Muskoka Dances.” And, dance they did six days a week. Before the first decade of operation finished, the place was so jammed a new venue was needed. So, in 1942, Dunn’s Pavilion opened. Dunn operated the dance hall for the next 21 years, before selling to Ray Cockburn in 1963, who renamed the venue The Kee to Bala. In the ensuing years, there have been several ownership changes, but the structure and the spirit have remained relatively unchanged.

Today, The Kee to Bala is still the place “where all of Muskoka dances”; it exists in Dunn’s original building and is one of Muskoka’s iconic landmarks. Over the years everyone from Crowbar and Lighthouse; the Tragically Hip and Rough Trade, to The Fabulous Thunderbirds and even Snoop Dogg, have played this historic venue. Cottagers and city folk alike make the trek to this hallowed hall most summer weekends. Some travel by boat, others hitchhike for miles. That is part of the mystique and what makes seeing a show at this venue so unique. Many artists rent or stay in cottages in the area with their families and make it a mini-vacation.

This year, the venue celebrates its 78th anniversary. The Sheepdogs have already played a pair of sold-out shows there in early July. Still to come: Alan Doyle, Steve Earle & The Dukes, David Wilcox, The Arkells, 54-40, Kim Mitchell and more.

Mitchell has been making The Kee a regular stop on his summer schedule for decades. Flash back to 1989. He and his band arrived, along with truckloads of gear, to capture a MuchMusic Big Ticket Special. You can see a glimpse here from the Rockland Wonderland DVD produced from this concert. Later, Mitchell returned to film parts of his “I Am a Wild Party” video at The Kee. Doug McClement via his LiveWire Remote Recorders captured the Big Ticket Special 30 years ago. What he recalls the most is some songs used three drummers, which made it difficult to get the sound on tape just right. “It was tricky to fit it all on 24 analog tracks,” McClement explains.

Speaking of drummers, Bazil Donovan, Blue Rodeo’s bassist, has a tale to share that involves their former keeper of the beat Cleave Anderson. The beloved Canadian band has played The Kee for a long time. The first time they performed at the Muskoka venue was definitely the most interesting. “Our drummer’s wife was pregnant and she ended up having the baby the day we played The Kee,” says Donovan. “We thought we would have to sub him out, but he ended up making the gig. We didn’t go on until 10:30 p.m. and his wife gave birth earlier in the day so it gave him time to get there.”

“It is such a fun place to play,” Donovan adds. “Most times we would do two nights and stay at a cottage down the road.”

It’s also a room where you have to let loose since the audience is so loud, making it a hard stage to play, unless you turn up the amps. “It’s definitely a good rock room!” Donovan concludes. “If you are going to be sensitive and quiet, they will drown you out.”

To learn more about Muskoka, Ontario’s famed The Kee to Bala or for information on upcoming shows visit:

Church conversions pave the path for renewal

Church conversions pave the path for renewal


Hamilton’s James Street Baptist Church is being converted into a new high-rise condo project.HUE DEVELOPMENTS AND LCH DEVELOPMENTS/HANDOUT

Historically, communities have been built around churches. Now, the latest real estate trend is flipping this formula and turning these historical buildings into neighbourhood hubs.

Over the past few decades, church conversions have taken place in most major cities across North America. Whether it’s the shrinking congregation size or rising maintenance costs, the question is how to preserve these buildings for future generations, while keeping them relevant and useful for current use.

Over the years, a number of solutions have evolved. Some churches rent out space to help offset capital costs. Some building owners sell the property to developers or simply shutter the doors. Still others are repurposed and reimagined as new spaces to congregate either as concert halls, special-event venues or as condo-conversion residential units. It’s this last solution that appears to have a devoted following both among amateur renovators as well as professional developers. Consider the HGTV show House Hunters: Outside the Box, where buyers bid to buy unique properties such as decommissioned churches and out-of-use train stations that are now transformed into stunning residential homes.

This is precisely what is happening to Hamilton’s James Street Baptist Church. Designed by Joseph Connolly, and opened in 1882, the Ontario heritage building is the city’s oldest surviving Baptist church. Located in the Durand neighbourhood, between Gore Park and King William Street, the former church is just steps away from Hamilton GO Centre station and a stop along the planned LRT.

Yet, the structure sat in decline for years until a consortium that included the City of Hamilton as well as Vietnamese-based Hue Developments, architects mcCallumSather and Toronto-based project manager LCH gave the structure a second lease on life as the Connolly Condos.

Set to go on sale this fall, the project incorporates what remains of the church into the modern elegant design; the high-rise features a 30-storey mixed-use tower with 315 residential units, ground-floor commercial space and 7,000 square feet of amenity areas spread across two floors.


For a while, it appeared there was no salvation for this building. Flashback to 2013, when developer Louie Santaguida bought the property via his company Stanton Renaissance. His plans were to build a condominium tower called the Connolly, but to do this, he needed to demolish two-thirds of the existing church building.

Heritage advocates protested, but in the end, Stanton was granted a permit to demolish all but the front third of the church. That happened five years ago. Since the demolition, the remaining church façade has stood behind a chain-link fence until the project finally went into receivership in 2017.

Another year went by and in walked Hue Developments, which bought the land in 2018.

“Certainly there were some in the core who didn’t feel confident the parcel was an attraction following the Stanton bankruptcy,” Ward 2 Hamilton Councillor Jason Farr says. “I will not forget one of the first meetings I had as a newly elected councillor in 2011. It was with the then-operators of the James Street Baptist. They had a declining congregation and growing capital and operating expenses. They wanted me to know they could no longer sink megabucks into a building that was literally crumbling each day. We met in the front corner office and before I sat down, they said, ‘Listen to the walls every time a bus goes by.’ I did.”

Extensive work was required to rebuild and fortify the church foundation, which is now the facade of the new Connolly high-rise project.HUE DEVELOPMENTS AND LCH DEVELOPMENTS/HANDOUT

Mr. Farr recalls how jarring the sound was when the bus rolled by. “You could hear the century-old mortar and stone falling between the walls.”

The project became a prime candidate for ‘façadism’ support, Mr. Farr says, which means it was eligible for zoning assistance and heritage grants and loans offered by the City of Hamilton.

“A third of this property is now protected by heritage designation and is set to be fully restored with assistance from some of the most robust municipal heritage grant and loan programs of any city in Canada,” he adds.


While Hue Developments is new to Canada, they are one of Southeast Asia’s top developers, with more than 20 years of real estate and construction experience. As the international arm of Hoa Binh, which trades on the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange, the firm currently has 92 projects under construction and operates in 40 provinces and four countries.

“Our biggest focus since taking over this project has been to do a better job at showcasing the church, and reintegrating it into the building and community,” says Luke Wywrot, managing partner at LCH, the Toronto-based real estate development firm hired to project manage this build. “We recognize Connolly’s impact will be greater than just the building; we are filling a void in Hamilton.”

McCallumSather, a mid-sized architecture firm headquartered in Hamilton is involved to help make sure the collective cultural heritage of this building is preserved. This bodes well for the project, given that mcCallumSather is known for award-winning innovative design and heritage projects, such as McMaster Institute for Music & the Mind and the Joyce Centre for Partnership & Innovation on the Mohawk College Campus – the first net-zero building in Ontario and the largest net-zero facility in Canada. Natural Resources Canada will award buildings the net-zero designation if the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is equal to the amount of renewable energy created by the facility.


Drew Hauser, director at mcCallumSather, still recalls the day when two-thirds of the church was demolished four years ago. It was one of the toughest days of his career.

“That was the hardest emotional job I’ve worked on,” Hauser says. “People sent me personal messages and hate mail, basically saying, ‘How could you allow this building to come down? It is part of our cultural heritage.’ ” It was hard to hear for Mr. Hauser. Still, the veteran architect is confident. “We’ve supported a design that allows the most important parts of the building to remain and be relevant.”

By developing a design that retains an important piece of that collective memory, Mr. Hauser believes the city benefits in the long run.

“People have this collective memory of a place. Cities are not static. They are always in a state of flux. The building long outlasts us. The collective memory, those stories, continue on,” he says.

Connolly’s most iconic feature is a rose window that spans 30-feet across its façade. This is being incorporated into the condos’ state-of-the-art gym. In a way, exercise is like a religion for many, so it seems fitting that this iconic window will find its new home in a new place of worship.

This project is just one example of Hamilton’s broader transformation from its long-held label as Steeltown to a metropolis known for innovation, renaissance and constant growth.

For Mr. Farr, it’s about time.

“As a lifelong inner-city kid who endured decades of stagnation and even decline, it’s an honour to be in this seat with folks who are really into climbing on board and building on our city’s unprecedented momentum,” he says.


New student residence solves space and usage issues at Hamilton’s McMaster University

New student residence solves space and usage issues at Hamilton’s McMaster University


The southwest view of the new 11-storey student residence at Hamilton McMaster University. The new residence offers views of the surrounding natural wetlands and forest.DIAMOND SCHMITT ARCHITECTS/HANDOUT

On a recent morning in late August, suitcases spilled from minivans as a steady stream of first-year McMaster University students arrived on campus. Some were apprehensive of what lay ahead, while others couldn’t wait for their parents to leave. No matter their state of mind on that exciting first day, their transition from high school to post-secondary life is destined to be memorable and enjoyable in their brand-new home away from home for the coming year.

These lucky learners were the inaugural occupants of the recently opened Peter George Centre for Living and Learning (PGCLL) – the first new residence to be built on the campus in 15 years.

Peter George was an esteemed and personable economist and professor who, prior to his retirement and death in 2017, served as McMaster’s president and vice-chancellor for 15 years. The residence that honours him is located on the north end of the campus, on a site chosen to encompass as much green space as possible – and the couple of Quonset huts, utility buildings and tennis courts that came down to make room for it are not much missed.

With 350 rooms, 518 beds and seven floors of housing, PGCLL helps McMaster narrow the current shortage of campus residence space. With its completion, the University does not have enough residence beds to meet student demand. Several other residence projects are in the planning stages to further narrow the gap. 

But this $110-million, 11-storey building is more than just a space for students to rest their heads. PGCLL is also a community hub – a 335,000-square-foot hybrid high-rise that brings together a diverse collection of university functions under one roof.

In addition to three auditorium-size classrooms ranging in capacity from 410 to 640 and a Student Wellness Centre, it’s also the new home of the McMaster Childcare Centre – a modern, state-of-the-art daycare facility with large windows and an outdoor play area carpeted with artificial grass. Situated on a secure second floor that is separated from the rest of the academic and residential sections of the building, parents and kids ride up in a dedicated elevator to gain access to the Centre.

“Peter [George] was a champion for all aspects of student life,” says Sean Van Koughnett, associate vice-president of students and learning and dean of students. “This building is a fitting tribute and symbol to his time at McMaster.” Further contributing to that lasting legacy are inspiring quotes attributed to the educator and student advocate that are displayed in every elevator lobby on the seven residence floors.


As available space on campuses decreases – and student enrolments rise – colleges and universities across Canada are looking for creative and innovative ways to meet these growing demands for capacity and enhance the student experience. The process of planning for how to accommodate McMaster’s future space needs, for about 31,000 students, began six years ago.

“We knew we had a growing student population, and we also understood that the types of teaching [and] learning spaces we needed to provide were evolving,” Mr. Van Koughnett says. “We understood the value that living in residence brings to students, while there was an increasing need for services such as health and wellness, which previously was crammed into the basement of the student centre.”

After many brainstorming sessions, the idea of a building that could accommodate all of these needs in one place began to take shape. From initial discussions to completion was a five-year process wherein “the whole would become greater than the sum of its parts,” Mr. Van Koughnett says.


The atrium at the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning, the newly built 11-storey student residence at Hamilton’s McMaster University, enables students to gather and collaborate in an open, inviting environment.DIAMOND SCHMITT ARCHITECTS/HANDOUT

Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects – who are responsible for the Ontario Science Centre, the Weston Family Innovation Centre and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts – took up the challenge of designing the facility.

Using all of their available resources and creativity, Diamond Schmitt designed a space where the various uses of the new learning centre and campus residence would work together seamlessly. The result was a new building, now the largest on the Hamilton campus, unlike any the university has ever seen.

Within the learning resource there are academic spaces where three large rooms are stacked on top of the other. The lower two house the auditoria, which with their raked floors and seating capacities of 650 and 500 give the university much-needed space to hold large exams and host supersized first-year classes. The upper room is an active learning area, which can seat 400 at 45 large round tables and is lined with large TV monitors that allow for interactive discussions. All of the walls are finished with whiteboard material to facilitate writing and sketches.

Gone are the days where students sat rigidly at their desks and listened to a professor lecture for an hour while they frantically took notes. Many university instructors now take a more free-flow approach to teaching, walking around and engaging in active discussions, breaking the classes up into working pods and using the latest technology to share information between the students’ laptops and giant monitors on the walls. Even the furniture was designed so that students can turn around and face their peers for group discussions to further facilitate this new learning style.

“Our biggest challenge was to make sure each of the spaces were defined and secure,” explains project architect Antra Roze. “All traffic into the building comes and goes through the main space where a helical (curved) staircase is the central visual, in the middle of the atria, that guides people up, giving them views and cues as to where to go next and encourages people to stop and look out over the spaces.”


Another McMaster department that stands to benefit from the PGCLL – both practically and economically – is the conference and events team. With three lecture halls of different sizes, study and breakout spaces, plus food services and 350 rooms, the new facility is ideal for hosting conferences and special events during the summer months when most of the students have left.

“It’s a smart use of resources to have activity in our buildings 12 months of the year, rather than sitting dormant for four months in the summer,” Mr. Van Koughnett says.

Ryerson University’s Daphne Coxwell Health Science Complex, which opened this fall, also features student accommodations and academic classrooms in the same building. Expect this trend of multi-functional buildings to continue as other campuses follow McMaster’s lead.


From the lounges on each of the residence’s seven floors, expansive windows offer unobstructed views of Cootes Paradise, a nearby natural sanctuary and wetland surrounded by forest, and McMaster’s athletic fields. At 20,000 square feet (nearly double the space it previously occupied in the basement of the student centre), the new Student Wellness Centre is filled with natural light and reflects well-being. It is staffed by a variety of specialized health professionals to meet the physical, mental and emotional needs of McMaster students.

The Peter George Centre for Living and Learning not only benefits current and future McMaster students, it also aligns with the university’s mission statement by contributing to the greater good of the City of Hamilton.

“McMaster is a huge player within the City of Hamilton,” Mr. Van Koughnett says. “Our mandate is to be economically and socially integrated into the city by generating and attracting business to the region – not only is that good for the city, but it’s good for the university.”



A new market experience evolves from old shipping containers and a new retail vision

A new market experience evolves from old shipping containers and a new retail vision



Stackt Market, the long-anticipated modular market in downtown Toronto, opened its doors to the public in April, unveiling dozens of new retail, food, beverage, service, experience and community spaces within roughly 120 shipping containers.

On any given weekend, close to Bathurst and Front Streets in downtown Toronto, you’ll find a block-long line of people taking shape. Even early in the morning, the line consists of urbanites, hipsters and tourists – all waiting patiently for donuts. Not just any deep-fried dessert with a hole in the middle, mind you. We are talking about gourmet creations – in flavours such as Lemon Lavender and Brown Butter Walnut – from Hamilton’s Donut Monster.

So, why would a successful Hamilton donut shop choose to open near Toronto’s King West area? The promise of brisk business, for one, but also because Donut Monster is one of approximately 40 hand-picked vendors invited to set up shop as part of Canada’s latest and largest shipping-container modular marketplace.

It’s called Stackt Market (or simply ‘Stackt’) and it is, quite easily, one of the coolest new public spaces in one of the fastest growing neighbourhoods in this already massive city.


With 120 shipping containers occupying 100,000 square feet of land owned by the City of Toronto, Stackt Market officially opened on April 10. The lease will be in effect until September, 2020, although there is hope for an extension as residents and city hall become increasingly aware of the benefits of this one-of-a-kind curated space.

Not too long ago, the 2.5-acre patch of vacant land that Stackt now occupies sat derelict, waiting for someone with the right vision to give it new life. When the parcel eventually became available, founder Matt Rubinoff went to work, bringing life to his vision of a container space where the community could gather, connect and share experiences.

Designed entirely out of shipping containers, Stackt offers a new outdoor all-season retail experience for both retailers and their clients.PATRICK LEUNG/HANDOUT

Five years later, Stackt is now a thriving King West hot spot, complete with free WiFi, dog-friendly greenspace and a revolving door of trendy retailers. Given its resounding success, Mr. Rubinoff would love to take the container market concept to other neighbourhoods.

“If the lease is not renewed, you could pick up everything and move it to another site,” he says. “Although, we are hoping the community embraces the project and we get the opportunity to stay longer.”


For years, Mr. Rubinoff lived close by, at Tecumseh and Richmond Streets, in Toronto’s still-developing west end. He knew the area well, and it was during a trip overseas that he became passionate about bringing this new retail model back to one of Canada’s most eclectic cities.

In the United Kingdom alone, there are more than a dozen of these food, retail or office spaces – all housed in repurposed shipping containers. One well-known example is Pop Brixton, South London’s version of the pop-up retail community, which, like Stackt, has become a thriving community on disused land.

“The best examples of reusing shipping containers to create an ever-evolving marketplace are in the U.K.,” he says. “Not all are retail. Some are co-working creative spaces. But as soon as I saw them, I thought this would be a great option for Toronto.”


During a recent tour of the Stackt marketplace, Mr. Rubinoff greeted every vendor with a smile and by name. His easy familiarity is not surprising when you consider that he selected each tenant to ensure Stackt would be occupied by the right mix of businesses and that they would all complement each other.

There’s a diverse mix of rotating vendors – everything from boutique design firms and vintage clothing stores to purveyors of semi-permanent tattoos (inkbox) and even a vegan butcher (YamChops). With something new to be discovered around each corner, the market has evolved to become somewhat of a destination experience.

Belgian Moon has set up a state-of-the-art mobile brewery at Stackt.PATRICK LEUNG/HANDOUT

In addition to retail outlets, the site boasts 12,000 square feet of event space, as well as a state-of-the-art mobile brewery and taproom set up by Belgian Moon Brewery. There is even a greenhouse being used as a community garden by tenants in the nearby condos who don’t have balconies of their own.

The pièce de résistance of the entire Bathurst Street project just might be the Forme 1 Pavilion that opened in July. Created by the Toronto-based multidisciplinary art-and-design studio Stacklab (the similar name is a coincidence), Forme 1 Pavilion will host a rotating lineup of local and international chefs, offering visitors a food-and-drink experience unlike any other.

“We wanted to use materials that were readily available, because the site is temporary and the timelines were quick,” Stacklab founder Jeffrey Forrest says. “There was an expectation to make the project feasible in the choice of our materials. [For instance] Tyvek (high-density polyethylene house wrap) is one of the biggest materials we used; it diffuses light beautifully, and after it is used in this incarnation, it can be redeployed back into the construction world.”

The pavilion is held together with 90,000 pounds of reclaimed concrete and heavy-duty ratchet straps, with scaffolding and shrink wrap among the other recycled materials used. Upon first glance, one might think the site is still under construction, but that, Mr. Forrest says, is the point – the artistic vision all along was to make the Pavilion spatial.

He believes that collaborating with Mr. Rubinoff’s team on Stackt was the perfect fit for the experiment, and he hopes the project will provoke a dialogue about the current Toronto construction landscape. As most commercial developers know, the approval process can take years, and Mr. Forrest would love to see more developers and project planners make better use of the time between planning and shovels hitting the ground. Rather than chain-link fence surrounding an empty lot, he’d like to see these empty, unused sites developed more often into thriving temporary communities.

“In Toronto, you see these ugly unused sites everywhere, and I see it as a missed opportunity,” he says. “They are anti-social, inward-facing and often unattractive spaces. What Stackt has proven is that disused space can be reprogrammed temporarily, feasibly and in an engaging way.”


Retail space with low rent is the draw for small-business owners. For some, it’s an ideal way to build their brand before branching out and setting up shop elsewhere. For other, more established brands, such as Indigo and BMO, the pop-up business model fosters a closer, community feel. Whatever the reason, virtually every Stackt tenant agrees that the customer experience offered by this retail community is remarkable, and something that traditional stores cannot replicate.

Janna Levitt, Stackt’s designer and principal at LGA Architectural Partners (formerly Levitt Goodman Architects), believes shipping-container construction is a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. No stranger to such projects, Ms. Levitt says these rebuilds create opportunities. Prior to Stackt, Ms. Levitt and her firm worked on Market 707 for the Scadding Court Community Centre at Dundas and Bathurst Streets, as well as the Welcome Hut at Evergreen Brick Works. For the latter project, a salvaged shipping container was retrofitted through the use of sustainable construction techniques and recycled materials.

“All these spaces were previously considered unattractive, dangerous or not useful,” Ms. Levitt says. “Now we can redevelop through existing materials and infrastructure by using shipping-container builds and this makes for a better quality of urban life.”




Live music’s last hurrah?

Live music’s last hurrah?

Toronto’s booming real estate market has led to escalating property assessments and rents in commercial buildings. Clubs that once staged local favourites and stars alike are closing



The Cameron House in downtown Toronto continues to showcase live music. But it’s among a dying breed. At least half a dozen clubs have closed in the core this year alone, continuing a troubling streak for musicians who just want to play.
The Cameron House in downtown Toronto continues to showcase live music. But it’s among a dying breed. At least half a dozen clubs have closed in the core this year alone, continuing a troubling streak for musicians who just want to play. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

It’s a Thursday night here on Queen Street West. Inside The Cameron House, Corin Raymond and The Sundowners are on stage. It’s standing room only for 100 music lovers who cram the narrow bar’s front room to hear Mr. Raymond’s weekly pay-what-you-can gig – one of the longest running artist residencies in Toronto, at 13 years and counting. Above the bar, a sign says: “This is Paradise.”

The Cameron House may indeed be a Utopia for musicians and fans alike but, along with the nearby Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, which turned 70 this year, it’s one of the few left in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood that once had handfuls of places where live music could be heard on a nightly basis.

Leave The Cameron and head north on Spadina Avenue. Eventually, after a few blocks, on the west side, you’ll stumble upon The Silver Dollar Room, which opened in 1958. The venue, where Bob Dylan, Levon Helm (The Band), Barenaked Ladies and Blue Rodeo once played, closed this past May; a high-rise student-housing complex is set to take its place.

Behind the bar at The Cameron House is a sign that says it all for musicians and local music fans: This is paradise.
Behind the bar at The Cameron House is a sign that says it all for musicians and local music fans: This is paradise. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

Other notable recent venue casualties in Toronto include The Hideout, Soybomb, The Hoxton, The Central, Holy Oak, Harlem, and Seven44. They followed the earlier exit of the The Colonial Tavern, Albert’s Hall, The Gasworks, The Edge, The Diamond, and The Bamboo. As Toronto arts weekly Now Magazine noted last March, seven music clubs alone closed in the first three months of 2017.

They’re falling in succession amid a perfect storm of economic factors that threatens them and other small businesses: As core real estate soars in value, property assessments and taxes rise in concert. Landlords then either find wealthier tenants who can afford escalating rents or sell to developers eager for their coveted properties.

“Progress is inevitable,” says Erin Benjamin, executive director at Music Canada Live, the voice of Canada’s live music industry. “Real estate will continue to rise.”

The Cameron House’s exterior is as colourful as its fresco-ceilinged interior. Resident artist Napoleon Brousseau created “10 ants” on the facade as a play on words for the tenants above the bar.
The Cameron House’s exterior is as colourful as its fresco-ceilinged interior. Resident artist Napoleon Brousseau created “10 ants” on the facade as a play on words for the tenants above the bar. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

The net effect for musicians, particularly the younger ones learning their craft and not yet ready for the city’s bigger halls and arenas, is troubling – fewer small venues means fewer opportunities to play. Fans lose out, too.

Toronto isn’t alone, either. Other major cities with robust real estate markets are experiencing the same trend.

Despite what many call a crisis, it’s not all doom and gloom, though. Amid these countless closings, some Toronto venues have reopened (Hugh’s Room) or are set to reopen (El Mocambo) with new looks and new business models. Additionally, Massey Hall, part of the non-profit charitable corporation that also operates Roy Thomson Hall, is entering the second phase of a massive revitalization project that will include two new performance spaces.

Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue in Chinatown has been open since 1943, making it one of Toronto’s longest-running music venues.
Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue in Chinatown has been open since 1943, making it one of Toronto’s longest-running music venues. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

The other good news: City councils, not just in Toronto, but other metropolitan areas such as Hamilton and London, Ont., are taking notice, adding “music offices” inside their local governments as liaisons with the music industry. “The news of venues closing is always a concern,” says Toronto councillor Josh Colle, who is a member of the Toronto Music Advisory Council (TMAC). “It alerts us to how important these venues are.”

Mr. Colle says TMAC is working on dozens of reviews related to live music venues: everything from bylaw changes to conversations between developers, planners and landlords. He acknowledges that taxes and rising real estate affects more than just music clubs. “We are losing bookstores, green grocers, shoe stores, etc.,” he adds. “The way MPAC [the provincial Municipal Property Assessment Corp.] assesses properties based on their highest and best use is a threat to every local business.”

Fellow councillor Mike Layton, who previously served on TMAC, adds: “There’s no doubt rent is playing a significant role in many of these closings. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do in limiting commercial establishments and the taxes they pay; that’s not within our powers but it is adding significant pressure. In municipal planning, we don’t zone for people, or for the tenants, we zone for the use.”

The boarded up Silver Dollar Room, right, joins the number of live music venues that have been shutting down in Toronto.
The boarded up Silver Dollar Room, right, also on Spadina Avenue, joins the number of live music venues that have been shutting down in Toronto. MICHELLE SIU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

The cost of real estate makes it prohibitive for certain kinds of businesses such as live music venues to thrive in certain neighbourhoods. Besides trendy Queen Street West, take Yonge Street. This is an issue close to Mark Garner’s heart. Following the recent closure of Hard Rock Cafe on Yonge after its lease expired and the owner was asking for $2-million a year in rent, plus taxes and other expenses, the chief executive officer of Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area is now working to help protect more of these legacy venues.

“We do a great job in Toronto of protecting the facades of our buildings, but we don’t protect the interiors,” Mr. Garner explains. “Taxation increases are really what is decimating these businesses – especially in our patch of the city. What happens on Yonge will eventually happen on Ossington [Avenue] and other neighbourhoods.”

Hard Rock is being replaced by a Shoppers Drug Mart.

Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, says his organization is trying to do more to protect live music venues. Hard Rock Cafe, on the left, is among recent casualties.
Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, says his organization is trying to do more to protect live music venues. Hard Rock Cafe, on the left, is among recent casualties. GALIT RODAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

“We did an analysis of buildings on Yonge, from Queen Street to Bloor, and found buildings appraised in 2012 for $2.6-million are now valued at $12.2-million,” Mr. Garner continues. “How do you phase in that kind of tax increase?”

More than 100 people recently attended a live music town hall at Lula Lounge on Dundas Street West in Toronto. Present were Mike Tanner of Toronto’s music office and Jeff Cohen, the majority owner The Horseshoe and Lee’s Palace. Other venue owners, music industry stakeholders, journalists, artists and patrons of live music also attended. Issues discussed and debated ranged from loading zones outside venues and noise bylaws to what everyone agreed was the elephant in the room – rising real estate prices in the metropolitan areas across Canada and the ensuing rise in commercial property taxes.

Most club owners lease space from a landlord. When that lease expires, there is often no barrier to how much that rent can increase. While rent control exists for many residential properties, that’s not the case when it comes to commercial buildings.

The Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West is to be sold even though the club’s propriator also owns the building. ‘I’m still struggling to make the business happen and get people in the door,’ owner Sam Grosso says.
The Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West is to be sold even though the club’s proprietor also owns the building. ‘I’m sitting on all this property that is worth a lot of money,’ owner Sam Grosso says. MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL 

Sam Grosso, owner of Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West, is one of the lucky operators who also owns the building. Still, it’s a struggle. And, that’s one of the main reasons the small-business owner recently decided to put the building up for sale.

“I pay my mortgage every month, not rent to a greedy landlord who keeps jacking up my rent until my lease expires,” Mr. Grosso explains. “It’s a double-edged sword. I bought the property for a good price years ago, but I’m still struggling to make the business happen and get people in the door.

“Meanwhile, I’m sitting on all this property that is worth a lot of money. You are beating yourself against the wall, and sometimes I ask myself: What am I doing?”

At the end of the day, Ms. Benjamin at Music Canada Live says all discussions about live music venues and real estate need to be long-term; there is no short-term solution.

“It’s important for TMAC and for other cities to pay attention and prioritize live music spaces in that big picture,” she says. “Once they are gone, it’s hard to bring them back.”

Refreshed Walper Hotel a symbol of downtown Kitchener’s resurgence


Refreshed Walper Hotel a symbol of downtown Kitchener’s resurgence

A $10-million investment has not only restored the historic gem but it has also given the rebounding city a missing amenity – upscale, boutique lodging


The rejuvenated Walper Hotel has filled a void in downtown Kitchener, offering upscale accommodation. MICHAEL MURAZ

Jazz legends Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong once stayed there. So did Eleanor Roosevelt and the Queen Mother. But over recent decades, The Walper Hotel’s appeal – and appearance – declined.

Today, though, thanks to a $10-million transformation and reinvention led by Perimeter Development Corp., the boutique hotel in Kitchener is back in ascendancy and has become the hot spot to rest your head in Waterloo Region – for everyone from locals on staycations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had a recent stay.

“When it came about to be involved in acquiring the hotel, we jumped at it,” says Craig Beattie, founding partner at Perimeter Development. “We saw it as an opportunity to bring that hotel back to what it once was. We’ve been working on a lot of different projects in downtown Kitchener for a number of years, and through all the relationships we’ve built with the tech community and local CEOs, we kept hearing time and time again that the missing piece was amenities downtown, in particular quality accommodation.

“Companies would have visitors come in to the region from out-of-market and they would have to limo them back and forth from Toronto because there was not the quality of hotel offerings locally.”

Built in 1893, designated as a historic landmark under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1983, and reimagined in 2017, The Walper Hotel sits at the corner of King and Queen streets – the heart of Kitchener’s downtown. This stretch of street had fallen on hard times in recent decades, and along with it The Walper had lost its regal stature.

Perimeter Development joined with Bogdan Newman Caranci Inc. (base building and restoration architect), Dubbeldam Architecture + Design and Jill Greaves Design (suites and guest floor design), and Dialogue 38 (lobby and second-floor public spaces design) to give the property a much needed facelift.

The time to invest was right. First, there’s the technology boom in this area often referred to as Silicon Valley North. Not only does the area have branch plants of some of the world’s largest tech companies (Google, Yahoo and Shopify, for example), but Waterloo Region also has the second highest startup density.

Add to that the new light-rail transit route (on which the hotel sits), set to be operational sometime this summer, and the hotel is a key part of the Kitchener rebirth and rapid growth story.

The Walper’s pledge of personal service is combined with 92 unique rooms to exude a vibe that rivals hip boutique accommodations in San Francisco or New York. It’s the little touches, such as in-room, pour-over coffee service, staff that know your name, and modern spaces. Canadian Juno award-winning musician Stephen Fearing recently stayed one night, following his sold-out solo gig around the corner at The Registry Theatre. The artist’s only regret? He couldn’t stay another night.

“It was very enjoyable,” Mr. Fearing says. “It’s a very sleek and elegant space, well-appointed and modern.”

The Walper Hotel, with rooms created by Dubbeldam Architecture + Design and Jill Greaves Design, has capitalized on the Kitchener and area’s tech boom, as industry visitors and locals alike seek out increasingly sophisticated lodging. GILLIAN JACKSON/HANDOUT

Growing demand from local businesses, combined with the overall growth in commercial and residential construction in the surrounding area, were the biggest investment drivers for this modern redevelopment project. As more technology companies call Kitchener home, their employees want amenities nearby, as Mr. Beattie notes. Visiting executives and potential recruits are also looking for a cool place to stay.

Michael Litt, chief executive officer of online video hosting firm Vidyard, loves the new and improved Walper. The hotel is visible from the software startup’s rooftop patio nearby. Not only do his leadership team, board members and investors stay there when they visit, but the firm also holds executive strategy sessions in the historic hotel’s Oak Room.

“When we are recruiting executive leadership, they stay there,” Mr. Litt says. “We put a welcome basket in the room with some snacks, and Vidyard swag. It’s a warm and welcoming experience you wouldn’t get out of a bigger chain, which we were using prior to the renovation.”

Gaze down King Street toward the heart of Kitchener’s core from Google’s office (located in a restored building that was once a rubber factory) and the signs of this growth in what is known as Kitchener-Waterloo’s Innovation District are visible on every corner. On one side of the street, a sign proclaims a new Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet is “coming soon;” on the opposite side, a crane is busy hauling material for 345 King West – Perimeter Development’s new 116,000 square-foot, six-storey office building, expected to be ready in the fourth quarter of 2019.

In the first quarter of 2019 alone, the City of Kitchener issued close to $1-billion in new building permits. That comprises about 15 developments, which will have 2,500 residential units, either condos or apartments. Add to that about 700,000 square feet of office space with roughly 125,000 square feet of retail at grade in the various developments.

“We are really excited about what’s happening,” says Brian Bennett, the city’s manager of business development and economic development. “The volume of growth we are experiencing downtown is unprecedented. A lot of that is predicated by the LRT as we’ve been encouraging intensification along the LRT route and in the central transit corridor.

“The evolution will continue over the next number of years,” he adds. “We just have to wait and see what the impact of the LRT will be.”

The hotel sector in the region is also poised for future growth, if supply can meet the apparent demand. “The Kitchener-Waterloo region continues to be highly sought after by hotel investors, particularly given a lack of product available for sale in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] and the overall strength and growth potential of the region. However, only a small amount of properties have come up for sale in recent years,” says Fraser Macdonald, senior analyst of hotels with Colliers International.

According to Mr. Beattie, the biggest potential game changer, which he believes is only a matter of time, would be an incoming GO rail service from the GTA.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is as much – or more – incoming traffic into our region for employment as there is going out to Toronto,” he concludes. “To have an incoming GO service is a huge game changer. There is lots happening behind the scenes on this front and it will be phenomenal when it happens.”

The Walper Hotel was built in 1893 but was refreshed a couple of years ago under the new ownership of Perimeter Development, in conjunction with lobby designer Dialogue 38 and others. LANGEN STUDIOS INC.


photo: Heather Pollock

After Steve Waxman graduated from NYU in 1982, with a screenwriting and acting degree, he stumbled into the music business. It was the tail end of the recession. Waxman took a Madison Avenue gig as an errand boy for Aucoin Management (KISS, Billy Idol). Two hours into his first day on the job, he knew he belonged in this business.

Nearly four decades later (the last 27 in publicity, promotion and marketing at Warner Music Canada) Waxman uses his talents and experiences today to help artists discover their story with his recently launched business: I.M. Steve Waxman. Just like landing that first job with Aucoin, finding this new calling at 60 was a “happy accident.” The epiphany came after many coffee conversations. He stresses his service is not a consultancy; rather, he offers entertainment career guidance.

“You need to define the narrative first”

Waxman is a storyteller with a curious mind, and a conversation with him is a lesson in listening. He rambles from one anecdote to another. Each sentence starts with, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” From stories of dressing up in KISS’ outfits in Aucoin’s warehouse along the Hudson River to launching Scott Helman’s career, what emerges is this: Waxman knows his narrative. The value of an authentic story, well told, pairs with the most important lesson Bill Aucoin taught him: we’re all facilitators.

“If the artist has a vision, it’s our job to make sure they succeed at their vision, but so many artists don’t even know who they are,” Waxman explains. “They want to put themselves in the hands of the ‘experts’ and let the ‘experts’ guide them. Bill taught me to do it a different way. You need to sit together and figure out how we can get out of you what your vision is, but you need to define the narrative first. Sometimes you just need an unbiased third party to ask all the right questions until you figure it out, but it has to come from you.”

Once an artist has a clear vision and a compelling story, Waxman works with them to determine what steps to take next, and what actions make the most sense at that particular stage in their career, by asking the right questions. Do they need a manager? What about a publicist? Just because you made a record or uploaded some songs to Spotify, Waxman says, this alone is not a story. You need something that defines you or your band, and makes you stand out.

“My goal is to help as many artists as I can get into a position where they can successfully take the next step, whatever that is,” he says. “From getting out onstage to finding a manager or agent. Your best friends are always going to be wowed by what you do. You need an unbiased truthsayer if you’re going to take your career seriously.”

Connect with Steve to learn more about how he can help you navigate your career and define your narrative:

Steve’s Top Five Tips

  1. Set goals. A lot of times people don’t set goals, or they set goals that are too big, like ‘We want to fill an arena one day.’ That’s a big goal that’s hard to get to, unless you have a whole bunch of smaller goals you can achieve first.”
  2. “Ask questions like, ‘What makes you special?’ Define your narrative and start to create your unique story. Then, figure out how to get this story out to the world.”
  3. Be original. Chasing what’s on the radio, or someone else’s sound, is pointless.”
  4. Develop your live experience. People often don’t think about that enough. What are you doing to entertain your fans? Envision what your greatest performance looks like, then scale it back to what you can afford. Keep that vision in your head, so when people see you perform, it always looks bigger.”
  5. Get social. Create content online that’s consistent, and matches your narrative and vision. Many artists fear social media; they think you have to be everything to everybody, all the time. Instead, you need to strategize and plan.”