Women entrepreneurs are playing a role in rejuvenating Thunder Bay's south core. But while attractive rental rates have helped them get started, they say the downtown area still faces some challenges.

Lori Paras recently opened The Red Bicycle, a small antique shop on May Street. Hers is one of more more than a dozen businesses owned by women, five of which have opened since 2012.

"I came down here because I know that there's a little bit of struggle going on down here with people trying to run businesses,” she said.

Lori Paras

Lori Paras stands in front of the antique store she recently opened on May Street. Paras used to rent property in the south core, but the recession drove her away. (Adam Burns/CBC)

“The more people that come down here and invest, it will build the community and eventually bring people down here."

A few years ago, she rented space in the south core, but the recession drove her away.

"This is kind of the beginning of a comeback, but I would say about five years ago, this was a great place to come down and shop."

'I created my own job'

Shelby Ch'ng opened Unveiled Bridal Boutique about a year ago. Ch'ng grew up in Thunder Bay and went to Lakehead for political science.

She worked at the medical school for about six years, but “it just didn't feel like success to me,” she said.

“All my friends were moving out of Thunder Bay and getting these big, successful jobs in big cities. I never wanted to leave. But I wanted my own peace in Thunder Bay, because this is my home and I don't want to have to be just working whatever job I can get. So I created my own job."

Shelby Ch'ng

Shelby Ch'ng checks the prices on some new dresses at her store in Thunder Bay's south end. Women entrepreneurs are playing a big role in bringing business to that part of the city. (Adam Burns/CBC)

That was about a year ago, but it wasn't long before Ch'ng had her first brush with the neighbourhood's rough underbelly.

A few days after she opened, she found a pair of pants hanging in a tree outside her door.

"It kinda looked like a prank somebody had played,” Ch'ng said, "but then I saw the blood on the sidewalk. And I'm talking a lot of blood. It didn't get cleaned up for probably about three days, and I was the one who ended up cleaning it up."

Ch'ng said she was told to keep quiet about the problems in the neighbourhood, for fear of giving it a bad reputation.

"But it's like being in an abusive relationship. If you just keep quiet about it, and not say anything, it doesn't get better,” she said.

“Stand up, speak up. There's blood on the sidewalk. This is not right. If somebody says, 'Well, you should move your business?’ No. This activity should stop. This is my neighbourhood."

'Not an easy fix'

Long time south core business owner Jim Hupka said the local Business Improvement Area is always trying to make things safer for shoppers and shop owners, but change takes time.

"These problems that are being brought forward are not new problems,” said Hupka, who owns Mister Jay Men's Fashion in Centennial Square and chairs the BIA.

“How we address them is not an easy fix. It's not, flip a lightswitch. It's something we've been working at, and seriously working at, for a long time."

Lori Paras is of the opinion that the new courthouse — and all the white-collar professionals who come with it — will bring lots of disposable income to the area.

'If this is your area, then just do it.' - Shelby Ch'ng, owner of Unveiled Bridal Boutique 

"But I don't see the lawyers, or the people that will be going into that building, as becoming our customers, unless we give that market of people what they want to buy,” Paras said.

Ch'ng is even more skeptical about what the new courthouse will mean for the south core.

“There might be a few more people in the restaurants around here at lunchtime. But think of it ... what do you do at lunch? You probably sit at your desk, eat your lunch, check your email,” she said.

“I don't think that's gonna make a big difference here. People are gonna come, and then leave."

But Ch'ng is still optimistic for the future of the neighbourhood. She's a big proponent of social programs, like the Shelter House's cold weather project, which is expected to help get homeless people off the street.

And she has a few words of advice for any other young women thinking of starting up a business.

"Do it. Just do it,” she said. “There wasn't a 'For Rent' sign on this place when I came. I just looked in the window, and I just fell in love. I just knew that’s where I was gonna be. And I say, if this is your area, then just do it."