Little Jamaica business owners hope for stronger year amid Eglinton Crosstown delay, COVID
Posted February 3, 2023 12:40 pm.
Last Updated February 4, 2023 2:40 am.
As an indefinite delay continues to hang over the Eglinton Crosstown LRT along with the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto, there are signs of progress in places like Little Jamaica and Oakwood Village despite the ongoing challenges.
Nicola Martin, the owner of Ethan Chill Spot, a restaurant on Eglinton Avenue West near Dufferin Street that specializes in Jamaican cuisine, has felt all of those issues firsthand.
“Very, very slow, like the whole place is slow — even the salons. Everywhere is slow in that nobody’s coming on Eglinton anymore,” she told CityNews.
“When it comes down to the summertime, you see business picks up a little bit but then it goes back down. It never reached a point where you don’t have to put money into it … I never passed the part where I don’t have to put money into it.
“It’s one year and four months now and I’m still putting money into it to take care of the bills and everything.”
Martin said she moved to Canada in 2005 and remembered back when Eglinton Avenue was bustling as she worked in two salons. As she looked to get into the restaurant industry, she said she felt drawn to come back to the neighbourhood.
“Let me go back to Eglinton to open because it’s known as Little Jamaica … you know the culture and everything. I believed that opening a Jamaican restaurant up here would be a great idea,” Martin said.
The whole effort has had extra personal meaning for her.
“I wanted to open this restaurant for my kids for their future and stuff,” she said, adding the business is named after her five-year-old son.
Getting the restaurant’s renovation done during the pandemic was a challenge.
After opening up on Oct. 1, 2021, Martin saw some business through food delivery apps but she said getting the word out about her food and signature dishes like jerk chicken and flavourful seafood has been harder.
“It’s the real deal because my spices come straight from Jamaica. In suitcases [it comes] up from Jamaica,” she said.
“You’re not making any money, but you want to, you want to keep your business because it’s something that they invest in and you’re looking to the future.”
Martin said when it comes to the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, she said all she’s got left is hope in the absence of further information.
“I remember when the construction started. It’s like many, many years ago, many years ago, And you know I think that time my daughter was 10 and now she’s in university, she’s 21,” Martin said.
“So when I look at her I’m like, ‘Does she even remember?’ … It just takes way too long.”
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Everything combined, she said, has made for “nerve-wracking” times. Martin said government officials need to “look into what’s happening out here” amid fears there could be further losses in the history-rich neighbourhood.
“Is it that little Jamaica is done or what do you know? Sometimes I asked myself what’s happening,” she said.
Organizations like the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA) have entered to help fill the voids entrepreneurs are facing.
Nadine Spencer, the organization’s CEO, said they’ve been working for decades to create economic opportunities for Black business operators and to support youth. She said they opened an office on Eglinton Avenue West, near Oakwood Avenue, in order to have a presence on the ground to support those impacted in Little Jamaica and Oakwood Village.
“When you think about the solo entrepreneur, they get up in the morning at 6 a.m. and they work until midnight. So the biggest challenge is for them to actually come and get the services they need and this is why this office in the community works so well because we have staff here that can work with them,” Spencer said.
“When the BBPA started in this area about four years ago, there were 187 businesses. Now with COVID and the challenges that this area has experienced, we now have 87 businesses.”
Despite that dropoff, she said there has been slight growth over the past year (up to 87 from 70).
“It just goes to show that people are invested in this community and it is growing and we are growing and businesses are coming back,” Spencer said.
“People are recognizing that there are opportunities here. It is a vibrant community, the history, the heritage, the culture is all a part of the great fabric of the city.”
The history and the area’s roots are in need of as much protection as possible, Spencer emphasized.
“In the ’70s, a lot of Jamaican immigrants came to this area. They came because it felt familiar. There was the food, there was the music, there was the culture and what I call a vibe of Little Jamaica Eglinton Avenue, and that’s still very relevant today and people still come for that history,” she said while recalling when she and her family immigrated to Toronto.
“I remembered the streets were full, all the stores were open. There was the essence of progress happening in the area and we want to get back to that, we must get back to that.
“The reason why a lot of people come here they come because they love the vibe, the culture, the food. There’s Sheryl’s Caribbean Cuisine where you come and you get great jerk chicken. Same for Rap’s, you get great jerk chicken, rice and peas, the steamed fish. There’s something so wonderful about the food that people come for and it’s unique to this area.”
Spencer said the Eglinton Crosstown project impacted the community heavily after work started in 2011. While the line appears to be getting closer to completion after a series of delays, the perceptions of the project linger.
“When the (construction) barriers were up, it made it hard for people to come. Accessibility was a huge problem still continues to be in some areas. But, we are hopeful the businesses are hopeful that down the road in 2023 or 2024, that when it is open, that more people will come into this community,” she said.
“At the end of the day, it’ll be a benefit for all — not just the businesses in Little Jamaica, but for the broader community and the city as well.”
In August, the BBPA, with some funding from the federal and municipal governments, organized a three-day event called Sinting Fest. It showcased the best of the neighbourhood and aimed to let people know there are no more LRT construction-related closures, pushing for a return in visitors.
The BBPA is once again hosting a signature event to reinforce the same messages. As a part of its Winter’s Coming campaign, an art installation and food events are coming to Little Jamaica on Eglinton Avenue West between Dufferin Street and Marlee Avenue during March Break.
But day to day, the BBPA is working to make sure supports are getting to where those are needed.
“We’re doing one-on-one wraparound services, showing the businesses how to access grants, and most importantly showing the businesses how to get online using technology to advance their business. We will continue to do more of this work and we hope to see more growth,” Spencer said.
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Like Martin, she said municipal, provincial and federal governments need to step up.
“One of the things that governments can do more of is to encourage more campaigns that show that the businesses are open, more awareness that it’s not as barricaded up as it used to be, that it is open, there are avenues you can get parking that you, it is now accessible. We need more of that support from government,” Spencer said.
Since the Eglinton Crosstown delay was announced in September, CityNews has repeatedly asked the Ontario government for more information about the indefinite delays and the new target opening date after hearing concerns from business owners that the lack of details was making it hard to plan.
As part of this story, CityNews asked once again for this information and once again those questions weren’t answered. Staff at Metrolinx issued a brief statement in response, echoing similar messaging given over the past several months.
“Transit riders in the GTA need and deserve transit that is effective and reliable from the onset. We fully recognize how difficult the disruptions caused by the delay in construction have been for commuters, residents, communities and businesses across the Eglinton corridor,” the statement said.
“Metrolinx will continue to push Crosslinx Transit Solutions (the private-sector consortium building the Crosstown) to ensure this project is completed as quickly as possible while ensuring it is safe and reliable for transit riders.”
In Oakwood Village, there is still some fencing in front of Fairbank and Oakwood stations. Cedarvale station at Allen Road is further behind in terms of needed construction work. Road repaving by the affected Eglinton Crosstown stations is set to happen by the end of summer.
Officials pointed to a contest launched late last year called “ShopEglinton2Win,” which handed out $7,500 to businesses and customers who visit shops in one of several BIAs on the corridor. But some business owners CityNews previously spoke with questioned if that would bring a large enough influx of customers needed. The statement added Crosslinx is “required to provide quarterly advertising in support of shopping local,” but the extent and content of that commitment wasn’t fully clear.
Meanwhile, Martin repeated a similar plea that so many along Eglinton Avenue have made throughout the enduring construction.
“We need everyone to just come out and support the small businesses in the area. Some people are single business owners, you know, just struggling and trying to just make a living,” she said.
“Some people are just struggling out here, so we just need people to come in and just support the small businesses at least once a week or so if you can.”