Creative Entrepreneurs: Sometimes a Crisis Brings Out Our Best

Will McGuirk

"There's a resilience too, to the city's entrepreneurs who buck the option to work the line. They want to work their own line; to create for themselves..."

(photos by Hark Nijjar)

Resilience—it’s character. It’s stubborn self-belief, git’er done work ethic and moxy. There’s a resilience to Oshawa. It’s been down—and it gets back up, again and again and again. And now, it’s getting back up again. New builds are popping up, investment in infrastructure is happening, and the town’s main employer for over a century—which had slowed down recently—has announced it will kickstart assembly again in the city’s south end.

There’s a resilience too, to the city’s entrepreneurs who buck the option to work the line. They want to work their own line; to create for themselves. They have a lot in common with the kid who opened General Motors in Oshawa all those years ago, Sam McLaughlin.

Even as Covid-19 haunts the entire world, sadly destroying lives and dreams, and forcing the closure of many businesses, there are still entrepreneurs who, pandemic-be-damned, are venturing into business for themselves.

It is their own resilience, their own self-belief and their own moxy they turn to, and they are taking the future on themselves and plan to build it to their own liking.

New Build, Historic Building

“Super-duper excited,” is how Maggie Maybe is feeling about post-Covid-19 Oshawa.

“All these new businesses are coming to the downtown; Baby’s Basement, The Farmers Market, The Rook. . . the downtown we won’t recognize in time,” says Maybe, who—along with her husband Ed, plus partner, Nick Diachenko of the Sacco Group Property Management—is the force behind another one those new businesses in the city’s downtown, The Music Hall.

Maggie Maybe and The Music Hall team pose in front of their new building in Oshawa
Photo: Hark Nijar

Maybe and her husband had previously operated The Music Hall on King Street. Their plan now is to convert what was once the Local 222 union hall, and then an indoor laser game facility, into a multi-leveled entertainment venue with a restaurant, 1200-capacity hall, and a 250 capacity venue in the building’s storied basement.

The basement at 44 was home for over a decade to an all-ages club called the Dungeon, which gave rise to some of the area’s biggest bands. Acts such as the 2019 Juno nominee Lindsay Schoolcraft and internationally known progressive metal band, Protest The Hero, cut their teeth there.

“It wasn’t the classiest venue in town, but at 15 years old, I didn’t care,” says Schoolcraft. “It was a chance for me to get stage experience with my first band, although at the time I had no idea. It was thrilling and exciting. There was a community built that carries out to this very day. If a venue like this didn’t exist, I don’t think we’d have half the bands and musicians from this area that we do now. I would give anything to have a community like that back and thriving in Oshawa right now.”

Banking on a New Market

Since high-school, entrepreneur Kyle Kornic has been investing in the community he found in his hometown of Oshawa. He believes in the city so deeply, even now during a global pandemic, that he is taking it to the bank—literally!

His new venture ‘The Rook’ is inside the former Royal Bank of Canada building on the corner of Simcoe and Bond. It will be part of the Oshawa Farmers Market initiative launched there by B.I.G. Reno & Design.

“The Rook will be a cafe/bar offering our own blends of Deadly Grounds Coffee, a large variety of delicious independent Ontario Craft Beers, Ontario Wine offerings, a nice bottle of scotch for when you need it, fancy espresso drinks and lattes for those that partake, delicious baked goods, and a bunch of other things I’m secretly working on. Also, we’re going to have a pinball arcade because I personally love pinball and need a half dozen or more pinball machines at my disposal,” jokes Kornic, who previously was co-owner of Brew Wizards Board Game Cafe.

Kyle Kornic, founder of The Rook, works the checkout at his other business, Brew Wizards
Photo: Hark Nijar

Launching a business at this time is “insane,” says the pinball-loving ex-Wizard, but he believes it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. He shares, he says, a common vision for the downtown with the Farmers Market developer, Alexis Kofman.

“We all have this super optimistic outlook on how, if we work together, we can change the downtown we love for the better,” he says.

Kornic has been working toward change every which way he can—from his time as an intern at Isabella’s Chocolate Coffee Shop, through to booking local bands at The Dungeon, the Thirsty Monk, and the Moustache Club, on to his “putting his money where his mouth is” outing as co-owner of Brew Wizards. With a diploma from Durham College’s Public Relations program, his goal has been to promote, champion, and embrace the depth of creativity and business acumen in his hometown.

“I truly believe Oshawa. The ‘Shwa”, if you will, is a place full of potential just waiting to step out of the shadow of its former glories into something newer and brighter. I think we just need to let go of the way things used to be here and learn to embrace the creative minds here and really invest in our arts, culture, and downtown again,” he says.

His hope, he says, is to see a downtown of locally owned creative start-ups. A downtown where The Rook, along with new places, such as the revitalised Dungeon and the Mansfield Cabaret, are added to the vibrancy of older establishments like Avanti and the aforementioned Brew Wizards. Such a downtown will create a destination not just for residents but for the hundreds of thousands living in the towns and cities around Oshawa (when it’s safe for them to come visit). It will also be a city centre that is more welcoming and inviting to the many post-secondary students moving in.

“Basically, I’m hoping for an “if you build it, they will come” outcome for Downtown Oshawa, and I think we have this tremendous opportunity post-COVID-19 for all of us small business folks to come together and work to build a super cool new community for ourselves and our clientele/patrons.”

Starting Up in Downtown Oshawa

Patrick Dunn has also seen the potential in Oshawa, the potential to help.

Dunn is the force behind the Benefi app, a tool created to build financial resilience. He is a start-up client at the Spark Centre innovative hub at King and Simcoe. The COVID-19 pandemic has—in the downtown core, as elsewhere—exposed the array of social issues facing the city; many cities.

“What we do is help individuals escape from predatory consumer debt, and improve overall financial wellness,” says Dunn, “This is relevant for everyone but especially for underserved populations, and people who are struggling financially. The high concentration of payday lenders in the downtown core makes me think there are folks out there who could use our services.”

Dunn moved around quite a bit before settling in Durham Region for education and employment opportunities. His family, he says, was looking for a place to raise a family and get involved in activities locally while having easy access to Toronto.

“It’s been my experience that folks in the region have been pretty kind. People know their neighbours, and on more than one occasion, I’ve been helped out by perfect strangers,” he says. “That sense of community is a real strength and something I’ve not always encountered in the other places I have lived.

In the case of Oshawa, I look at cities with a similar history (looking at you, Detroit) and can see the potential for a substantial resurgence in the near future. COVID-19 has forced many companies and employees to think through remote work—and for many, this means an opportunity to live and work away from the core. I think this makes regions like Durham and Oshawa attractive for young professionals to start homes and families. I think we’ll continue to see an influx of new blood to the region.”

Baby’s Basement Transitions From URL to IRL

Contrary to the hit songs by her country music relatives, The Stellas, Conner Stella wasn’t going to wait for it to be-e-e-e-e-e-e perfect to open Baby’s Basement. Baby’s Basement is the physical location of her previously online-only vintage clothing business venture located in downtown Oshawa. The young entrepreneur had been planning for over a year, so she was just going all in—pandemic or not.

Conner Stella in her newly-opened vintage store, Baby's Basement, downtown Oshawa
Photo: Hark Nijar

“The timing isn’t perfect, but it will never be perfect,” she says, “and I wasn’t willing to let this location slip through the cracks. I sincerely wish I could say that I had an inside scoop, but sometimes you just have to go for it.”

And going for it in Oshawa is integral to the plan, she says. It is part of her vision and experience.

“Oshawa is my home! I love it here. I have also been so inspired by the cool and creative small business owners striving to make real change within the community. Baby’s Basement wanted in on that. Oshawa has untapped potential, and there’s already a lot of positive change happening here; I just want to ride that wave,” she says.

It is a wave upon which all boats can rise. The city is awash with developments; condominiums, hotels, student residences, which all raise the number of people downtown. People with needs; needs that can be met locally.

“I truly believe sustainable shopping options are important, not only for a growing community, but also for the planet itself, and Baby’s Basement strives to fill that need,” says Stella.

The business needs Stella has strived to fill herself. She has become a Jill-of-all-trades—something many small-mart operators will recognise. Doing-it-yourself has been something many creative entrepreneurs in the city have become experts in.

“It’s hard to focus on one specific area because I’ve tried to teach myself how to be in every role. I’ve learned so much in the past two years: from social media, graphic design, and video editing to accounting and bookkeeping. Being creative is just an integral part of the ride. Also, there’s a big crossover between my thrifty DIY attitude, making more sustainable choices, and being creative. That has made opening the store a lot of fun. Did I ever imagine we’d build our own cash desk? Nope, yet here we are.” she says.

Yes, here we—at the Four Corners, downtown—are. The crossroads of a still-unknown road ahead for us.  These folks know; they are making their own road, blazing their own trail, investing in the city but also in themselves.

Northwest-facing view of four corners, downtown Oshawa as traffic passes.
Photo: Hark Nijjar