Demand for Space ‘Staggering’

Dan Canfield is no longer surprised by the people who walk through his doors.

Since opening last year, the owner of Village Guitar and Amp Co., a boutique guitar store on 20th Street, has hosted Alice Cooper's band, Kim Mitchell and Canadian guitarist Peter Fredette.

Josh Clinghoffer, the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, came with the rock band's crew two weeks ago before taking the stage at Credit Union Centre. It was a good day for the shop's bottom line.

"When they do hit town, they come," Canfield said.

"They hit the arena, they set up the show and they come straight here."

There are no backpacking college students or camera-toting tourists strolling down 20th Street yet, but Riversdale is starting to get a serious tourism push.

"It's getting huge buzz," said Angela Moore, director of media for Saskatoon Tourism, who has been pitching the Riversdale story to travel journalists at conferences.

"It's no longer the place you tell people to avoid. It's a neighbourhood that shows people how we're progressing as a city."

This month, Chatelaine, a long-running national women's magazine, featured the neighbourhood in its travel section, singing the praises of Riversdale's "hip new joints" and "vintage flair," the farmers' market and River Landing.

This fall, a Los Angeles writer visited Riversdale and featured the area in the Sing Tao Daily, a wide-reaching Chinese-Canadian newspaper.

Air Canada's enRoute magazine in September named Riversdale one of Canada's "next great neighbourhoods."

"Riversdale, one of Saskatoon's original neighbourhoods, was once named Richville after an early settler," the preamble to the enRoute story says. "Despite its old moniker, the area has seen some tough times, but thanks to the current 'Saska-boom' (this is Canada's fastest-growing city), it's becoming a true west-side success story, with new galleries and condos underway, and an indoor farmers' market brimming with local treats like wild-boar sausage and fruit wines."

The national attention is welcomed by business owners, including Dallyn Guenther, who opened the Underground Cafe, a 20th Street coffee shop, this summer.

The walls of Guenther's coffee shop feature a series of poster boards titled "20th Street urban visions," created by the city to outline improvements planned for the street, including sidewalk upgrades, more benches and trees. Around 150 people came in last month to see the streetscape plans and talk about the future of the neighbourhood. Private investment is joining public investment, which Guenther says is important to change perceptions of the street.

Guenther, 26, travelled to Australia and New Zealand after leaving home in Outlook, seeing firsthand the rise of coffee culture. He sees a future street that is the heart of Saskatoon's cafe culture with baristas offering serious, artful cups of coffee.

"It's starting to get a critical mass," Guenther said. "It's just going to build on itself."

Riversdale, once dubbed the "Harlem of the Prairies" and an emblem of urban decay, still fights the perception it is unsafe. The area has one of the highest crime rates in the city and a cluster of social agencies, pawn shops and soup kitchens.

Moore, who moved to Saskatoon six months ago from Toronto, suggested touring conference-goers through Riversdale to learn about the area's culture and history when Canadian travel writers visit next year. The idea was met with raised eyebrows.

"The feeling was, 'Oh, we don't want to show them that. What are you trying to show them?' " she said. "I said, 'Don't think about your city in a box. Think about the story of the city.' The revitalization of Riversdale is a huge, wonderful story and it's ours to tell."

For years, Riversdale sat at the intersection of virtue and vice.

It was home to Chinatown in the early 1900s, a part of the area's multilayered culture and history that is being rediscovered.

Later, it was Saskatoon's first red-light district. It housed gambling parlours and opium dens. It became a community not of big business and corporate interests, but of mom-and-pop shops.

It's that local business fabric and young entrepreneurship that commercial realtor Kari Fox wants to see maintained as 20th Street evolves. Some wonder whether a new image will be consistent with Riversdale's history. Some fear it could become a place its own residents do not recognize.

"When you start to re-gentrify a neighbourhood you start to appeal to Starbucks and other retailers," Fox said. "I'd like to see it stay local."

Fox says the demand for space in Riversdale has been "staggering" and she fields calls daily from interested investors. As the supply of commercial space has dwindled in other areas like Broadway Avenue, Eighth Street and downtown - and lease costs have jumped - 20th Street has become a major player. The tourism attention is attracting calls from across the country. Two residential developments are in the works off 20th Street and the multimillion-dollar pieces of land that will soon be open for bids at River Landing are garnering interest.

The area still lacks a substantive retail component, but new local restaurants and small businesses are summoning another generation to Riversdale who aren't so concerned about its past reputation, she says.

"People come into the city from out of town and they see Riversdale with a different set of eyes," Fox said. "They look beyond the history and stigma."

On this day, Fox was on the phone with Randy Pshebylo, the director of the area's BID. Pshebylo ran a funeral parlour on 20th Street for years before taking over the business group. A placard on his office door declares him "Mayor of Riversdale," a nickname he wears with pride. He fired a text off on his cellphone while speaking on his office phone, which was balanced on his shoulder. All day his phone rings with offers of business deals, questions about what's available and expressions of concern.

Seeking to capitalize on the tourism attention, the BID has created a pamphlet com-lete with a huge map of all the businesses in the area. A sepia-toned photo of a kid in a suit riding a skateboard with a rocket strapped to his back declares the area is "ready to soar." The new tag line for Riversdale is "out of the ordinary."

Freshly tested by focus groups, a mascot for Riversdale is unveiled in the pamphlet. "Riversdale Ricky" is the self-appointed tour guide and will be the face of the marketing and social media initiative trying to attract people to the area. He wears a fedora and a brown suit, hip and vintage at the same time.

"At the end of the day, it's about the message," Pshebylo said.

"We're trying to overcome that negative perception and trying to get the perception to match the reality of what's happening here."

dhutton@thestarphoenix.com

Twitter.com/HuttonSP