A fire in North Bay’s downtown more than a year ago devastated three businesses and left them with an uncertain future.
But with determination, insurance, and a plan to return to the city centre, all three have committed to rebuilding.
While Lefebvre’s and Vested Interest are both currently operating in different locations in the city, The Abbey, a card and gift shop that began 34 years ago, opened for business at the end of November last year.
“It took almost took an entire year of demolition and removal, since we had extensive water and smoke damage,” said Paul Lyle, son of owner John Lyle.
A new boiler system, installed before the blaze, could not be repaired so a new in-floor heating system was installed, along with new lighting.
And although the 87-year-old building was given a modern renovation, its original features, including skylights and a 38-foot-high ceiling, have become part of the new look.
“It was hidden before with a drop ceiling which was put in to help offset the cost of heating many years ago,” he said.
A brother, who is an architect, did the redesign, which included many energy-saving efficiencies.
“After the fire, there was a lot of head scratching. A lot of downtowns are struggling and the solution seems to be to put a box up with a parking lot and isolate yourself,” Lyle said.
“We felt that we wanted to have a community head office that was about people and not about the current retail standard, so we had to come back. We were too attached to the building and location and believed in the concept of an historic downtown, even though it was a long project getting back.”
For Gerry Lefebvre, owner of Lefebvre’s Source for Adventure, which retails outdoor equipment and clothing, the intention was to always return to the original location.
“Part of the problems you run into, with the insurance company, is that you take two steps forward and three back. We have had delays, mostly caused by the insurance company saying it has to get something verified,” he said.
However, the historic 24,000-square-foot building, with three floors, sustained extensive damage.
“There’s a lot of work. All the reclamation work has been done, so we are just waiting for the actual approval. The engineering drawings are in the hands of the insurance company right now for costing. I expect that shortly we can expect to see some fresh nails being banged in there,” Lefebvre said.
“Since we just turned the clock on our 100th anniversary on Jan. 1, we would like to get back there and celebrate that.”
Since June, the store has been operating in space in the north end of the city. While it has plenty of retail space, storage is an issue.
“I have 50 to 60 kayaks to be delivered (by April) and no place to put them,” he said. “I guess we will have to rent extra space.”
Within 10 days of the fire, Lefebvre and his staff started rebuilding everything from scratch, after losing inventory, the computer and accounting systems, displays and showcases.
“I was always determined to reopen. It just happened too abruptly and I wasn’t ready to throw the towel in yet. Luckily, we had the right people involved,” he said.
“Our customers remained loyal and we have picked up a whole new flock as well.”
While no timelines have been set, he is hoping to open again downtown in the fall.
Vested Interest, which began 20 years ago by Jennifer McNutt Bywater and Brent Bywater, scrambled last year to get ready for the annual Toronto Gift Show at the end of January.
With no products and no display booths, an appeal went out to the business community through the North Bay Chamber of Commerce for help. The couple was overwhelmed with the response.
“The community really helped and we had a lot of volunteers. Had we not had the extra hands, we could not have pulled it off,” Bywater said.
The show attracts 16,000 retail buyers from across the country and it was important not to miss it. The store carries a variety of handmade products from Indonesia and Thailand and gourmet food products.
It set up temporarily in a former garden centre on Seymour Street but the couple is eager to return to their downtown location.
“We have plans to go back to the former location,” he said. “It’s been a slow process, and there are still some things to settle with the insurance company, but everything is going as well as expected.”
Repeat customers have found its new location and a lot of product is on display, with some of it in a former greenhouse.
“It certainly is a rebuilding of the business, with all the stock and inventory that was lost,” Bywater said, “and we are working hard to get the building restored. We ditched hanging our hats on any timeline, so we will just take it day by day.”