5 female entrepreneurs transform Thunder Bay's downtown south core

An influx of mostly-female entrepreneurs has brought fancy coffee, fresh fudge, homemade pasta and imported Asian food to a Thunder Bay, Ont., neighbourhood once known for empty buildings.

Could they succeed in creating a new hipster neighbourhood?

Crystal Co co-owns Upshot Coffeehouse on May Street. She and her business partner had their doubts about doing business in the downtown south core until they discovered how friendly the neighbourhood is, she told CBC. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

If you've noticed a change in Thunder Bay's downtown south core lately, you're not the only one.

Several once-empty buildings are filling up with shops selling homemade pasta, fudge, coffee and Asian food, among other things.

Many of the entrepreneurs opening those businesses are women.

In honour of International Women's Week, the CBC spoke to some of those business owners to find out what drew them to the neighbourhood. 

Crystal Co, co-owner of Upshot Coffeehouse

Co and her business partner, Aundrea Rajamaki, were long-time cafe employees with a passion for coffee and a dream of opening their own business, Co said.

They had doubts about opening in the south core, Co admitted, but they changed their mind when they did their research and started looking around.

"We didn't realize how friendly everybody is around here and how great the neighbourhood is," she said. "When we came into this space it was instant. We knew it was perfect."

Upshot has attracted professionals in the area from courthouse staff to city accountants to employees of Shelter House, she said.

She laughs at the suggestion that downtown May Street could become Thunder Bay's next hipster neighbourhood but adds, "There is a movement around here that's been present in the past year or so."

"People are saying that too. 'I come over here, and I haven't been here for years, and it's totally different now,'" Co said.

Kreesa Ro, owner of Knyaw Lucky Store
Kreesa Ro owns Knyaw Lucky Store, which sells Asian food. Some of her customers are concerned about safety in the downtown south core, but she assures them the neighbourhood is safe, she said. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Ro launched Knyaw Lucky Store to make Asian foods available to members of her own Karen Myanmarese refugee community in Thunder Bay and to serve them in their own language.

She chose the downtown south core because it was affordable and conveniently located near the professional buildings she still cleans at night to supplement her income, she said.

"I've heard other people say it's a bad location, but for me it's better — way better than back home," said Ro, who grew up in a Thai refugee camp.

Some of her customers have expressed concerns about safety in the south core, but Ro assures them it's safe, she added.

"Some people act bad because of the harm they've been through," she said, "but everyone has a heart. They like each other. If you don't hurt them or make them feel bad, they're not going to hurt you."

Kim Pizzolato, co-owner of The Pasta Shoppe
Kim Pizzolato and Ashlyn Ransome own The Pasta Shoppe on May Street. They chose the location because they wanted to balance their work and family life, Pizzolato said. South core businesses cater to more of a daytime crowd than a night time crowd, she added. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Pizzolato and her daughter Ashlyn Ransome come from strong Italian families and grew up with freshly-made pasta, so it's no surprise that pasta was on the list of possible business options for the accountant-turned-entrepreneur.

They chose the south core because it offered Pizzolato the work-life balance she was looking for, she said.

"We found, just with some of our research, that a lot of the Port Arthur downtown area is geared to a more late night crowd, which would involve a lot more staffing," she said. "We really wanted to be able to bring a lunch time crowd in and cater to people that are in the area rather than making them travel to a different location."

They've been surprised by their clientele, Pizzolato said.

"We figured that we would be drawing in on different cultures and stuff like that, but we really found that the Italian communities [are] coming to us because a lot of the ... traditional family dishes are still being craved but not produced, because a lot of it does take time."

Rose Pavlin, owner of Farmhouse Fudge
Rose Pavlin owns Farmhouse Fudge. If women keep opening businesses like hers in the downtown south core, she said, the neighbourhood could see a return to its heyday. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Pavlin opened her shop in the downtown south core because she had fond memories of the neighbourhood's heyday, she said.

"I always remember all the places you could walk through downtown. There was lots of clothing stores, there's lots of restaurants where everybody knew your name," Pavlin said,

"And I think if enough of us come in and open these little shops, the neighbourhood could turn around."

Opening on May Street was a great decision, Pavlin said, because there's nowhere for local residents and employees to go, and her shop has been busy.

"I believe 3,300 people come to work here every day, and we all love chocolate, and we need coffee," she said, laughing.

"I think with women coming in and opening up these small shops and investing in the neighbourhood and not being afraid to be here, [it] can turn the neighbourhood back to what it used to be," she added.

Lori Paras, owner of The Hub and The Red Bicycle
Lori Paras owns the Red Bicycle and The Hub bazaar. She was a veteran of opening businesses in emerging neighbourhoods when she invested in the south core four years ago, she said. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

When Paras opened The Red Bicycle four years ago, she didn't have high hopes for the downtown south core, she said.

But Paras was a veteran of investing in emerging neighbourhoods, having opened a restaurant in the downtown north core in the early days of its evolution. 

"I had experience in building something, having a hope that people would come and join in, and downtown Port Arthur did it," she said.  "They're booming.  It's wonderful.  And I knew that we could do it here."

​"I remember last June ... looking across the street as several business owners and building owners were cleaning up their fronts of their buildings, and there was a joyousness," she said.  "You could see it.  That they saw that their neighbourhood was changing for the better."