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From watering hole to artist's water cooler – Simcoe Street lives again

In its early days, the street was a famous watering hole for shipbuilders, then it fell into disrepair before it was adopted and revitalized by area artists

Nestled just east of Hurontario Street is an historic Collingwood community that has come back from neglect to bustle once again.

Affectionately called Creative Simcoe Street, the two-block strip is known to many as Collingwood’s creative arts area.

The district is home to several restored buildings, including the Tremont Hotel, a former newspaper building and an 1870s duplex, and the neighbourhood now hosts well over 25 independent and creative businesses — from the visual arts to culinary and the performing arts.

“We see it now as much more than just an arts area, but as an arts and entertainment district,” said Rick Lex, a local conservancy advocate and owner of several Simcoe Street buildings.

To add to its artistic charm, Simcoe Street has a rich and colourful history.

The Tremont House, a monumental building located on the corner of Simcoe Street and St. Paul, dates back to 1889. The building is one of the last remaining 19th-century hotel buildings in the Collingwood Downtown Heritage Conservation District. Operating as a hotel for over 100 years, the Tremont still carries its original name and is an historical link to Collingwood’s shipbuilding era.

Over the years, the Tremont became dilapidated. The hotel closed down, and the neighbourhood became known as a very “seedy, bad end of town,” said Rick’s wife Anke, a local artist and conservancy advocate as well.

In 2005, the town purchased the Tremont and the building that stood where the Collingwood Library now stands. The plan was to knock both heritage buildings down and level the land for parking and other public use.

Rick and Anke and several other members of the community band together to save them, and in 2009, the couple purchased the Tremont from the town. But the building on the library site was torn down.

“We thought, you don’t have to get rid of the buildings, just change their use,” said Anke.

Over the course of a year, Rick and Anke restored the building, rehabilitating its original exterior and creating space inside to inspire new businesses and ideas.

On September 17, 2010, the building reopened under the name Tremont Studios.

“At the time, people close to us — our friends and family — all thought we were crazy. They kept telling us to get out of the deal,” said Anke.

Now, exactly a decade after the building’s restoration and grand reopening, the Tremont and the street on which it is located have been revived.

“We have to give the artists a lot of credit,” said Anke. “They gave the building a chance. We had 10 artists sign up for studio space while it was still gutted. It gave us all the confidence.”

“Artists are often there at the beginning of revitalization,” added Rick. “They can see it before anyone else.”

The Tremont has a long history of hospitality and dining and for years, was a “favoured watering hole” for shipyard workers, so Rick and Anke wanted to keep the tradition alive.

“They are complementary to each other, artists and restaurants,” said Rick. “Creatives create synergy.”

So, even though the Tremont Cafe recently moved to a new home on Pine Street, Rick said the Tremont will “continue to be a building for dining and the arts.”

In the years following, Rick and Anke continued the trend, acquiring two other buildings on Simcoe Street: a 1980s former newspaper building and an 1870s duplex — one of the oldest surviving brick buildings in downtown Collingwood downtown. Both buildings were once home to the former Enterprise Bulletin newspaper.

Extending the arts and culinary concept of the Tremont, the newspaper building was converted into seven studios interconnected by a central hallway. The building now houses several creative and culinary businesses, including the Blue Mountain Foundation for the Arts (BMFA), the Fleet-Wood Dance Studio, Low Down Cocktail & Snack Bar, Espresso Post Petit Cafe and Bakeshop, and Simcoe Street Theatre, a 100-seat black box studio theatre.

After standing vacant for several years, the neighbouring duplex was also carefully restored and is now home to six creative studios and Collingwood Art School & Alexander’s Art Supplies.

“It’s revitalization through the arts,” said Anke. “The buildings needed to be saved and the artists needed a spot to work, so it really all came together at the right time.”

And artists love old buildings, observed Anke with a laugh.

Andrew Peycha, a full-time artist at the Tremont Studios, said he is constantly inspired by the old building and the artists who work alongside him inside it.

“We joke that we have water cooler talks at the Tremont before we get into our routine,” said Peycha. “There are so many different arts to be celebrated here. I like that I can walk down the street, get a snack or a coffee. We rely on the premise of the area a fair bit that way.”

“The artists tell me they love it, they say they feel like they are back in art school,” added Anke. “They get to visit with and be inspired by all of their friends, but without the marks.”

The addition of Collingwood Art School & Alexander’s Art Supplies, owned by Jason Alexander, solidified the growing trend of artists migrating to the area.

“Jason brings so much of the arts together on Simcoe Street with his art supply store and art school,” said Rick. “He also has a number of studios that he rents out, as well as being an amazing artist in his own right.”

Alexander’s shop was previously located on Hurontario and then on Third Street for several years. The shop opened on Simcoe Street two years ago.

“The arts are going to be strong here. They are already growing,” said Alexander. “Most of the folks who move here have artistic inklings. They are driven artistically, whether that be fine arts, music or theatre.”

And the recent addition of two new restaurants and a coffee shop have transformed the street further.

“Having the recent addition of the restaurants that we have had in the last couple of years has been a huge boom to the street. I think that has added a whole other dimension to the activity,” said Rick.

The onset of COVID-19 crushed both arts and hospitality industries, so this summer, artists and entrepreneurs pushed to have Simcoe Street closed to traffic on Saturdays for a safe, mini-festival that would celebrate the successes of the different artistic endeavours.

“I was drawn to this area because it is such a beautiful and charming part of town,” said Cassie Mackell, co-owner of Low Down, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary. “Simcoe Street attracts artists and entrepreneurs who are working together towards the betterment of the neighbourhood. The Saturday pedestrian-only street is a perfect example of that.”

Rick and Anke agree, and hope the closures can continue next year.

“There is so much potential. We think next year is going to be a really amazing year,” said Rick.

“The area has always been known as a sports destination. What we’re trying to do here is make Collingwood more of an arts destination as well,” added Alexander. “The weather isn’t always there, and that’s when the culture comes in. A strong arts culture will make us more of a four-season, all-year destination.”




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Maddie Johnson

About the Author: Maddie Johnson

Maddie Johnson is an early career journalist working in financial, small business, adventure and lifestyle reporting. She studied Journalism at the University of King's College, and worked in Halifax, Malta and Costa Rica before settling in Collingwood
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