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North Bay's 'downtown renaissance' to be spurred by residential development

Few entrepreneurs have embraced rebirth and transition — 'renaissance' — like John Lechlitner and his team

Although there are two comfortable chairs nearby, John Lechlitner prefers to stand and chat in the hallway leading to the Grande Event Centre.

It is approaching lunch hour and the laid-back, keenly interested but mostly hands-off president of the Cecil's Brewhouse & Kitchen and The Grande Event Centre family of brands speaks while his staff operates like clockwork to serve the day's function in the McKenzie Room — a room he says the downtown complex has big plans for.

Standing near one of the many spots where beer and liquor once flowed from the Zoo Niteclub's main bar until the early hours of the morning, Lechlitner loves to reminisce about the good old days while proudly looking forward to his company's next transformation.

"In the hospitality business, you must continue to evolve," Lechlitner observes. "It all has to be a big picture that works and part of the scope of what we're trying to do downtown."

Now that the mid-March announcement about the next planned phase for the big red building at the corner of Main Street East and Wyld Street has made the rounds, Lechlitner is pleased to take a few minutes to go into some more detail about what is in store.

"This was definitely always in the back of our minds to use the upper floors for some type of residential use," he shares. "It was part of the plan from when we got out of the nightclub business and built The Grande and turned Cecil's into a restaurant."

Few local entrepreneurs have embraced rebirth and transition — renaissance — like Lechlitner and his team. Since the late-1980s, the former Continental Hotel has housed successful bars, a music hall, nightclubs, a restaurant, a brewery, a catering company and an event centre. And, soon, home or several homes.

"We've looked at all different types of options for what may or may not work. Timing has been a factor over the years — what is the strength of the downtown, what is the weakness of the downtown — like any community, the downtowns have gone through good times and tough times.

"I think downtown North Bay is going through a bit of a renaissance that is just starting right now."

Lechlitner says effective planning and the disruption to business caused by the pandemic have allowed for the "unattractive work to be done." The upper floors have been gutted, pre-engineering work done, the electrical and plumbing have been replaced, and the sprinkler system has been upgraded.

Outdoor space will be added. The views from the upper floors of Lake Nipissing and the accompanying sunsets will create a desired selling point. Lechlitner says the units facing the lake will have patios and a rooftop patio for residents is in the works.

"We have some unique features that you wouldn't necessarily get in existing buildings," he says.

The architects are finalizing the fine details but the plan is to build one- and two-bedroom units, up to 25 in total. 

There are three floors above the ground floor, with about 15,000 square feet of space for the units. Construction is underway. An addition will also go on the back of the building, above the McKenzie Room for elevators and stairs. The layout of the addition has yet to be finalized and Lechlitner says this will determine whether how many units will be constructed.

The Grande's Ferguson room will continue to host events.

"We don't want small closet-sized units. We want some space. The average one-bedroom unit is 500 to 600 square feet. We want to make sure we are in those averages and make sure we are at about 700-900 square feet on a two-bedroom.

"We want people to live here not stay here. Upstairs has to be complementary to what we are doing downstairs. What's affordable to one person might not be affordable to another. We have not pigeonholed ourselves into any market. The only thing I've said and will continue to say is the demographic that will live in this building has to be complementary to the demographic that would also come to Cecil's."

Lechlitner says the price points will be dictated by construction costs, noting there have been no handouts from the levels of government for the development. 

He acknowledges there are millions of dollars invested in this new development and while his business interests are profit-focused, there is an overarching sense of civic pride involved, as well.

"By doing this downtown, as well as some of the other groups with similar interests in the community that are working downtown, we need to work, if it's not together, with some commonality because we all have the same goal, to breathe new life into the downtown for the next 50 years," he says. 

"A strong core of the city makes for a strong city. This is the renaissance that is going on. It's important to be part of our community, not just do business in our community."

— BayToday