Latest News

The Genosha Saga

genoshaBy Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

She’s a reminder of what Oshawa once was. She’s a symbol of what Oshawa has become. She’s a vision of what Oshawa could be.

She holds a history that runs like blood through the heart of the city, memories of a time when politicians, auto barrens, police and royalty all arrived in Oshawa with a sense of wonder and hope as the skies greyed with sooty smoke and the city boomed with industrial fervour.

She doesn’t hide her sleazy past, the basement strip club, the defunct rooming house; the vandalism, the graffiti, and all the neglect and failure.

She owns it. In all her remaining glory she stands tall on the corner of King and Mary Street in downtown Oshawa.

She is the Genosha Hotel, and she is Oshawa.

What Oshawa Once Was

At her peak, the Genosha was a bustling hub of movement, money and power.

The hub in the wheel that was Oshawa’s industrial core, the Genosha served as not only a hotel for deep-pocketed visitors, but also as an ornate and well-furnished place for the barons of industry to meet.

“It was the place to be,” says Jennifer Weymark, the archivist of the Oshawa Museum. “There wasn’t anything like it here before, before it was built, so it was filling a need for these industries at the time.”

The hotel opened its fine-wood doors in 1929, a time when Oshawa’s downtown was an industrial machine, nine years after Oshawa’s trajectory was changed forever when R.S. McLaughlin sold his carriage company and merged with General Motors to form General Motors of Canada.

With that, cars began to pump out just up the road, one of the automakers several facilities across the former city of Oshawa, the Fittings Ltd. was in full swing on the south side of what is now Bruce Street, and Ontario Malleable Iron, and the Pedlar People Ltd. were all within the Genosha’s orbit, and pulled in her clientele from these profitable industries.

“It certainly signified, for me, the economic stature of Oshawa at that time, to have this beautiful hotel built in this downtown suggested a prosperity that maybe some of the other surrounding communities that didn’t have similar hotels, weren’t experiencing and that is due in large part to the sheer number of industries that were here,” Weymark says.

The city was a whirlwind of production, from cars to metal ceilings, textiles, farming equipment, pipefittings, and even pianos; Oshawa was making it all.

However, as the Genosha and many of her former owners know, a good thing never lasts.

What Oshawa Has Become

It could easily be called the Genosha Curse.

Time after time, year after year, dollar after dollar, owners have come with big plans and a bright future for the former Genosha Hotel, only to find themselves in too deep. The plans fall away and the Genosha is left alone once again to her long sleep.

And it’s not just the modern attempts, which have garnered much media attention in the city of Oshawa, but these cursed attempts started early.

After its grand opening in 1929, which came with a $500,000 price tag, the owner, J.W. Butler and Co, would end up defaulting on the $325,000 mortgage four yeas later. In 1933, it was sold for a fraction of the price to an unknown company, and along with it, a curse was born.

Between 1933, the hotel operated sporadically, perhaps getting itself some nice attention in 1939 when Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George the VI, came for a visit. It’s also rumoured that Ian Fleming, the war veteran and author behind the creation of James Bond, may have stayed at the hotel during his time at the secretive Camp X on the Oshawa-Whitby border. However, like many things about the mysterious spy-training facility, Fleming’s presence at the hotel is still clouded in suspicion.

However, this, and the royal visit was not enough to break the trend that was slowly unravelling at the Genosha Hotel, and across the City of Oshawa.

In 1952, another owner came along with plans to upgrade the nearly two decade old structure. Harry Finer would end up pouring $250,000 into the building with the hopes of preparing her for the modern era.

And it appeared to work, for a while. The Genosha would enjoy a solid run of success into the late 1970s when Finer eventually sold his interest in the hotel in 1977. In that same year, one of Oshawa’s main employers of the time, Ontario Malleable Iron, also closed its doors.

The following owner would not be so lucky. Stan Edwards would end up pouring approximately $200,000 in the building, but sold the hotel four years later in 1981. However, it wasn’t the last that the hotel saw of Mr. Edwards. After the hotel entered receivership in 1983, Edwards returned, this time reportedly spending nearly $750,000 to fix the aging hotel.  His second run wasn’t destined to last either, perhaps impacted by the closing of two more of Oshawa’s main industrial employers, that being the Pedlar People Ltd. in 1982 and Fittings Ltd. in 1987.

By 1992 the hotel was in the hands of an Ontario numbered company.

Over the next decade the hotel would see a scattering of uses, including a boarding house, and being the home of the Million Dollar Saloon strip club from 1998 to 2003.

After being designated a heritage property in 2005, the hotel had a smattering of owners before Richard Senechal and Richard Summers came forward to the city with a proposal to convert the aging asset into student housing for the downtown UOIT campus. Senechal and Summers were awarded over $1 million in tax breaks and grants for their project in 2009, on the condition work would be completed the following year.  When that deadline wasn’t met, an extension was granted into 2011. At that time, building permits had expired and all work had come to a standstill.

In 2015, another developer would have their kick at the can. This time, Bowood Properties came into the Genosha picture with big plans and a deal with the owner Senechal to finally finish the redevelopment. Oshawa council once again stepped up with over $1 million in grants to assist with the project, contingent on the building’s completion.

“There’s nothing more that I would like to see than get that done,” said Tracey Christie, the owner of Bowood Properties in a March 2016 interview with The Oshawa Express.

At this point, some visible improvements were made to the building, including an overhaul of the roof. However, issues over the ownership of the building threw a wrench into the gears, and by 2016 all work had stopped and silence reigned once again.

It wasn’t long before the Genosha once again entered hibernation, the culmination of a sad reality that was not only impacting the Genosha Hotel, but Oshawa’s industry and downtown as a whole.

“You can see in our downtown that history, and what was constructed due to that economic prosperity at the time and when the industry kind of shifted and when Oshawa’s number one jobs, the industry, kind of shifted and faded away, the downtown kind of shifted,” Weymark says.

And shift it has, from a hub of industry, to a gutted shell, to a seedy underbelly, to its current middle ground, where some of the past brilliance seen at the Genosha Hotel and across the downtown was once enjoyed.

With the new owners at the Genosha taking serious steps, it could signal that the downtown, and Oshawa, are on the cusp of something big.

What Oshawa Could Be

Much like some of his historical predecessors, the Genosha Hotel has a hold on Richard Summers.

After his first attempt at restoring the property fell flat alongside Richard Senechal in 2009, Summers has returned once again to convert the hotel into a modern home for students and a hub of activity with ground floor commercial dreams.

“We’re doing luxury apartments, and it’s been a long awaited project, so we want to put quality commercial tenants that fit into that vision of luxury and quality,” Summers says.

It’s a vision of not only the future for the hotel, but is also a connection to the hotel’s roots, when it was the centre of attention in the City of Oshawa.

For Summers, the second time around has not been without its ups and downs either, the Genosha curse once again trying to get its claws into another attempt at refinishing the aging building.

While Summers was able to clear the ownership hurdle which tripped up Christie, the former owner, issues with finalizing the development permit delayed the start of the project. With that said, the city did approve a healthy incentive package once again to hopefully motivate the development along to completion, including nearly $700,000 in tax breaks over 10 years and a $750,000 facade improvement grant.

The process was further stalled with a development charge fight that saw Summers looking to gain an exemption from $230,000 worth of education development charges this past March. It was a bid he eventually failed before turning his attention back to finalizing the building permit.

“We definitely want to get it right with the city and the residents and be positive because of the all the different owners and companies that have been involved and unfortunately haven’t finished the project yet. It’s created uncertainty and seems to cause the city and it residents frustration,” Summers previously told The Express.  “This is very important for the downtown,” he says. “We’re very confident in these purchasers and the development services staff of the development services department and the development services committee want to work with these people.”

On May 3, in a celebration that involved the mayor, MPs, councillors and other dignitaries, Summers was awarded the building permit on the sidewalk at the foot of the Genosha.

“We understand people who have been negative based on past history, but our goal is to finish the project as fast and efficiently as we can,” Summers said at the time. “We believe that cities are judged primarily on the condition of their downtown, and we feel that when the Genosha is complete, it will help brand our city.”

That branding is going to take some time, and effort. The aging building, while now scrubbed clean of the soot and industrial memory that once coated the yellow brick like a film, the inside is now completely gutted.

“There’s no real mysteries in the building, it’s been stripped down to concrete,” Summers says. “A lot of it has been done before.”

It’s almost a collaborative effort, with each subsequent attempt at reconstructing the hotel, it has moved the marker that much closer to the finishing line. Now, with his tradesmen locked down and signed, Summers hopes that he is the one that will be able to push the project over the line.

“It’s a solid team, solid experience made up of local teams and companies,” he says.

For Summers, the progress is actually making up for time lost in the early days and the effort to get their building permit. While the current schedule may impact the grant timeline set by the City of Oshawa, council has shown itself to be sympathetic to developers in the past and commonly provided exemptions and changed timelines if it is sure that work is progressing.

Right now, Summers says his team is working on an “accelerated schedule” over the next 10 to 12 months to bring the project though to completion.

Currently, site preparation efforts are underway to prepare the building for construction, alterations to the entranceway, waterproofing for the basement and some further demolition work are also underway inside.

“It’s actually building energy as we go because we’re progressing quite well,” he says.  “We’re already working with companies on the heritage restoration of the lower level.”

Summers says this will go a long way toward helping attract businesses to potentially locate on the ground floor of the heritage building, because as it stands, the curb appeal at the site is not the greatest.

“When we get that done we plan on focusing on selecting and securing some quality and suitable commercial tenants to compliment our vision,” he says.

Currently, Summers notes that coffee chain giant Starbucks has already expressed interest in the site.

For some time, the City of Oshawa has known the importance of the Genosha Hotel to the restoration of the downtown.

“It truly is the last piece in the puzzle,” Mayor John Henry has said in the past.

However, for years, that puzzle piece has just been missing from the box.

Right next door, the Regent Theatre, another historic downtown building has been bought by UOIT and repurposed as a downtown entertainment venue. To the north, a pair of apartment complexes at the corner of Bond and Mary are sprouting from the ground, and right next to that, Durham’s mega courthouse stands in all its judicial glory.

Unfortunately, the Genosha hotel has not seen similar treatment. Whether it’s the Genosha curse, or bad management, it’s clear that the time has come to get the project completed.

The streets of downtown are leaning towards becoming more walkable, with council approving a new King Street improvement project to enlarge sidewalks and eliminate parking directly in front of the Genosha Hotel. In the years ahead, the Fittings property, completely flattened after the business went defunct, will soon become the home to new residents and families in Oshawa’s downtown.

The signs are there, and while the prosperity may not be like Oshawa’s industrial past, which lingers over the downtown like a ghost that just won’t leave, one thing is clear.

When Oshawa does well, the Genosha does well, and when the Genosha does well, well, then things in the city are just fine.

 

BEHIND THE WRITING

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

In all honesty, it’s a story that has been told many times.

The history of the Genosha Hotel is one that is well known across the City of Oshawa, and unfortunately, it’s a history mostly known for its curse of failure than it’s rich roots steeped in the wealth of industry.

However, with this story, I attempted to do something different, to tell the story in a way that perhaps hasn’t been done before.

For starters, the story of the Genosha is always told in isolation. In the same way that the Genosha Hotel used to stand tall in the city’s downtown, dwarfing the other buildings around her, the building’s history and the series of failed projects have begun to overshadow a lot of the the other, more impressive elements of the story.

At the start, I wanted to bring that history to the forefront. In the first paragraphs I wanted to make it clear that this building and her history, has deep connections to the growth of Oshawa. Almost like a microcosm of the entire history of the city, one that has seen industry come and go, and one that is steeped industrial success.

Throughout my years writing about the Genosha Hotel, I’ve never really had the chance to dive deep into this history and once I did, it became clear just how interconnected things are. In particular, there are clear connections between the departure of some of Oshawa’s key industries and failed attempts to rejuvenate the old hotel.

Like in 1977, when interest was sold in the hotel just as Ontario Malleable Iron closed its doors.

Or another attempt to revitalize the Genosha between in the late 1980s, which was doomed to fail after the closure of the Pedlar People Ltd. and Fittings Ltd.

In the case of this feature, it was definitely bolstered by the latest information, the fact that Richard Summers has obtained all of his tradespeople to complete the work and that things are moving forward. However, for a long story like this, it’s these types of interesting twists that a writer likes to find and pull to the forefront.

In the case of the Genosha, there are a lot of different avenues to tell this story, many of which have been taken before. Yet, with such strong interest in the community, it’s a story that people continually want to read.