The young entrepreneurs of downtown St. Catharines

Chris Charkowy, owner of Mindbomb Records/ Mindbomb Records

The transformation of downtown St. Catharines has brought a lot of life and energy back into the city’s core.

I recently had a chance to speak with two young and successful St. Catharines entrepreneurs — Chris Charkowy from Mindbomb Records and Sarah Jarvis from Craft Arts Market — who have experienced this transformation first hand.

How has the St. Catharines downtown core changed in the last few years? How does this impact your business?

Chris: The addition of the Meridian Centre and the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre have definitely helped with bringing more people downtown. I feel like the bars and restaurants benefit the most when there is an event going on. The extra walk-by traffic is a definite plus for us, though.

Sarah: I have only lived in St. Catharines for about five years and the change downtown has been significant. When we opened in January 2015, downtown was still so desolate. The Performing Arts Centre, Marilyn I Walker and the Arena [weren’t] open yet. There wasn’t much going on yet, [there was] lots of spaces available and I think people were just waiting to see what was going to happen before taking the leap on opening a business.

I decided to take the leap and open Craft. We didn’t know what to expect – was it going to work? We knew that St. Catharines downtown needed more retail, and I really wanted to create a space where I could sell local art and crafts. Happily, it worked. And worked very well. Beechwood Doughnuts opened their doors about two weeks ahead of us, and then a handful of other businesses started opening over the next year as well as the Performing Arts Centre, Marilyn I Walker School and arena.

The energy shifted downtown, and people wanted to come see what was happening. We had so many people come into the shop and say they haven’t been downtown in years and that it was such a joy to see it coming to life again. There are a handful of business owners down here that support each other. We help promote and drive business to each other so it’s helped our business grow. As the downtown grows with more positive changes, so does my business.

What makes St. Catharines an attractive option for young entrepreneurs who are looking to start a business? In what ways does St. Catharines help small businesses grow?

Chris: Unlike the bigger cities, we have a blank slate here in Niagara for a lot of things. Whether it’s a record store, vegan restaurant or music venue,  as long as you’re filling a void and providing a service that the community needs you’re bound to have a good chance of succeeding. Everyone from the Downtown Association, to the Mayor and the community in general realize the importance of supporting local businesses.

Sarah: I left St. Catharines for a while because I felt it was lacking culture. I spent a couple of years in Toronto absorbing the culture and when I came back I wanted to bring a little bit of big city culture to St. Catharines by opening Craft and bringing third wave coffee. The thing is – culture already existed down here with the beautiful old buildings and the s-curve of St. Paul street. The history behind the railroad, the canal and that downtown existed as a bustling place to be back in the 50s and 60s before the mall came. There are people who see the potential, and those people are young entrepreneurs trying to bring it back.

We now have a state of the art arts facility, a fine arts school and an arena making downtown a little bit more cultured, giving it some anchors and definition. Our mayor, Walter Sendzik, has been a wonderful addition to a city that has always been very old school. He is supportive of fresh ideas, moving forward and changing the way we’ve been doing things for years. He’s made young people eager to participate in the growth.

There are lots of different grant and loan programs geared toward young entrepreneurs, along with help and guidance from folks over at the Enterprise Centre at One St. Paul, you can get started opening up something of your own! We have some wonderful people supportive people in Niagara and it has such a great energy.

What advice do you have for Brock students who are considering starting businesses in St. Catharines after they graduate? How can these young entrepreneurs make the most of what the city has to offer?

Chris: Start by doing your research. Make a business plan, crunch the numbers and set yourself up to succeed before you even open your doors. Work hard, be passionate and never get too comfortable.

Sarah: If you’re a Brock student and want to open a business, it’s in your best interest to write a business plan, seek guidance and [get] help from sources like the Enterprise Centre or from other business owners and mentors. I made a lot of mistakes and wished I had the guidance and advice of some professionals in regards to things like accounting, partnership agreements, budgeting, marketing etc.

It’s best to start your business right instead of half-assed. Build it right, design it right. Don’t rush it. You can make the most of what the city has to offer by connecting with the city and other resources available out there to help you. I’d be more than happy to help anyone who has questions!

St. Catharines downtown is still in its infancy and it still needs lots of new and fresh ideas! We tend to have a lot of the same things and I find people are afraid of trying something fresh and new. But you’d be surprised, it’s what everyone wants down here. It’s a very exciting time for downtown as people like us keep raising the bar and hope some better businesses open.

If you have any questions for Chris or Sarah, please feel free to contact them at info@mindbombrecords.com and Sarah@craftartsmarket.ca. You can also find their businesses on Facebook, check them out!

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