*and For Real Estate!

Growing up in Niagara in the 90s, I thought of it as any teenager would: Niagara was an “old people” town with nothing to do! (Read: in angsty teenage Naomi voice.) To be fair, St. Catharines (where I lived) was in a bit of a decline. Businesses in the downtown core were suffering and declining in response to developments like the Pen Centre megamall and other economic shifts. In the early 2000s, I remember walking around the city with my dad noticing all the closed stores and restaurants and overall “ghost town” feel. My niece would have called it “cringey”.

Today though. Have you seen Niagara today??? Now that I am a full-fledged adult, at first I thought I was just seeing the place with new, mature eyes and noticing how things were not as cringey as I thought. But they actually aren’t. The whole Niagara Region has seriously upped its game! Wining. Dining. Brewing. Doughnuting. As a Realtor®, of course I have to point out what the media has been saying for the past few years – real estate here is still affordable, especially in relation to Toronto (https://bit.ly/2FIyClx). But beyond the cheaper real estate, it’s a seriously enjoyable place to spend time. I can honestly say in 2020, Niagara is not only the place I live but the place I would CHOOSE to live in all of Ontario – nay, in all of Canada.  It is 100% worth telling you, in detail, why I’ve changed my mind.

So, I give you, my post-90s adult opinion of why Niagara is actually THE place to live right now!

We’re Back Baby!

That sad, declining flower of the 90s has had a clear resurgence, from a hipstery-cool downtown to a reviving Port Dalhousie beach-life district. St. Catharines just happens to be the Niagara city where I live, and I find myself extremely busy these days checking out new things all around town. Our lakeside area of Port Dalhousie, which is a heritage district hearkening back to the 1800s, had many of its iconic buildings torn down in preparation for a condo development that failed many times over, and has sat for years in a near desolate state with a gaping hole where condos were supposed to have been (https://bit.ly/3a6zWfX). However, the past couple of years have brought about a grassroots revival by local business owners with a cool microbrewery (Lock Street Brewing Co.), Balzac’s coffee shop, and a local artisan shop (The Local Life) on the Main Street strip keeping up interest. Finally, housing developments are coming to fruition, with local company Rankin Construction buying up the famed empty lot & an old factory to create trendy loft condos, and the iconic Port Piers are being repaired and slated to re-open by 2021 after five years of no lakeside strolls (https://bit.ly/386RVkK).

Now let’s talk Downtown. It is my favourite place to be, and where I’m found most often in life. The city came up with a Garden City Plan in 2010, and since then the growth in our Downtown has been explosive: the Meridian Centre (a 5300 seat arena) was built and opened in 2014, and attracts acts as big as Elton John and Jerry Seinfeld (I tried picking up food on Elton John night…the crowds got real); a Performing Arts Centre down the road opened in 2015 showcasing tons of arts and cultural shows and events (https://tgam.ca/384pdks); shops are getting filled up with interesting & sustaining businesses like indoor local arts markets (Craft Arts Market), vegan doughnut shops that are visited by doughnut-enthusiasts from around the world (Beechwood Donuts), old cinemas repurposed into cooperative workspaces (The Lincoln); and my most favourite of improvements: world-class dining experiences in new restaurants like Dispatch Restaurant – it was actually named one of Canada’s Top 10 Restaurants by enroute this year! #props (https://bit.ly/3a5BOpd). And we’re not just about food, drink and entertainment (and real estate – thought I’d pop that in there again!). We’re liked by the sports community – chosen by the Canada Games to come here in 2021, and a new Canada Games Park being built at Brock University. I don’t think even an angsty teenager could say St. Catharines is an “old people town” anymore.

The dream-like doorway to the GTA

When I was younger, every time I visited friends in Grimsby I noticed the GREEN. Grimsby is very green, full of lush trees and bordered by the Escarpment with some pretty epic Autumn views. And over the past few years now, Grimsby has become a favourite for GTA commuters – located perfectly just away from the GTA congestion, with tree-lined streets and the slower moving vibe of Niagara. Grimsby was even named the second best community in Ontario last year by Macleans magazine (https://bit.ly/2FYeNXD). It’s also a favourite for me, and the place you’ll find me second-most often. Grimsby is, to me, the Niagara OG. It was way ahead with this small-town-big-city allure that Niagara seems to have taken on. Grimsby has this very cool, quaint, hyper-local downtown strip. It’s already fun to spend any afternoon visiting all the locally-run shops with their eclectic (and actual quality) offerings – but they also run annual summer evening markets outside all season, and ‘ladies nights’ of shopping through the year. And, they have one of Niagara’s first licensed cafes (Station 1 Coffeehouse) that features great musical acts in a cozy, intimate upstairs venue. This is not to mention the lakeside community being built up along the Lake Ontario shore, and the major coming of a new GO train station in Grimsby as part of the expansion into Niagara, making it all the more appealing to Torontonians looking to get away. Real estate-wise, it has this beautiful mix of very old, gorgeous maintained Victorian homes, and new, luxurious homes with views on both sides: Escarpment and lake. I sold an 1840 Georgian mansion on an acre on the Escarpment last year, and driving down the hill to town was the epitome of why everyone wants to live here.

One word: Graze.

I won’t go on and on about Lincoln, although I really could, because I love it. I’ve talked ears off too much already. Basically, Town of Lincoln was always the ‘farm area’ growing up, so tons of land, big lots, and it also runs all along the Lake Ontario waterfront. Inside, it’s got these two amazing communities: Jordan and Beamsville. Jordan is the most adorable little village you have ever seen. As a teenager I had a job at the Jordan Historical Museum, dressed as a Mennonite doing tours of its local United Empire Loyalist heritage. Once of drinking age I noticed this museum is on a cute mid-town street which also hosts the annual Icewine Festival in its square – drink icewine in the great winter outdoors while warming yourself by firepits & watching wine barrel rolling competitions. It’s fantastic!! Just down the road, an old school was converted into the uber-cool Bench Brewery, with some crazy good food and beer (sours – I am a major sour fan, and if you are too, you will love this place) and bordering Twenty Valley and The Bench area of Beamsville. Now Beamsville. This town’s vibe can be summed up in one annual summer event (that always sells out – but not before I get my ticket!): Graze the Bench. This is a touring wine festival, where you travel across the many wineries on bus and by foot – literally, walking through vineyards – to get a glass of an amazing Beamsville wine (Bench wines are world-class, and honestly my favourite) paired with a gourmet dish & entertained by a different band with a different sound at each one. Need I say more? I could say more. But I will just leave that right there for you to daydream about.

It’s all Welland good

I was born in Welland. It is my hometown, though I only lived there until I was 4 years old. Welland has gotten a bad rap, even from locals from just outside its borders (truth-bomb: even from me!). But Welland is a diamond in the not-so-rough. First, it runs along the Welland Recreational Canal, where rowers and dragon-boaters practise, music festivals have been held, and a “float fest” happens in the summers where you can actually float all day, lazy-river style, in the canal. Second, it’s a place where jobs are growing, and has perched itself lately as an attractive spot for commercial industrial property developments. It was chosen by GE in 2016 for their new “Brilliant Factory”, bringing digital technology & lean manufacturing together and into the region (https://tgam.ca/2FKtUnf; https://bit.ly/385qSpA). It’s also a solid place to live, with areas like the old John Deere site set for a large housing development (https://bit.ly/3a6JGXo). And third (fourth?), there is a very unique underculture with a youthful current particularly around East Main Street. To me, East Main is like the beginnings of a Leslieville. It can appear to some as a little rough around the edges, but it’s rich with places like The Black Sheep Lounge serving coffee and a true mission to improve lives (not just with coffee, but with initiatives by an impressively young owner who also sits on city council), and restaurants like The VHC (seriously good vegan) and Taris on the Water (taking advantage of the actually beautiful canal-side view). My rap about Welland is now a totally positive rap. A song even.

Not your grandma’s tourist destination

If you’re from outside of Niagara, you might already know Niagara-on-the-Lake, which we somewhat affectionately (or probably just for brevity/laziness) refer to as ‘NOTL’. Consistently named as one of Canada’s top best places to live, it’s a picture-perfect town with 19th century buildings, horse & buggy rides, theatres & peach festivals, Christmas candlelight strolls, and tons of wineries. As a Niagara local, it’s our own local getaway, and even feels like a mini-trip and a whole new world when you live on its outskirts. But I want to give a very honourable mention to Niagara College, which has one of its campuses in NOTL (right across from the newer outdoor mall, where I kid you not, the Kate Spade store does 70% + 20% off deals regularly….!). At this college, they have some seriously cutting-edge courses that add very specific interest to our local industries: Niagara College houses Canada’s first commercial cannabis production program, The Canada Food and Wine Institute, and the Niagara College Teaching Brewery (https://bit.ly/2tSLRNM). That’s nothing if not a one-two punch for forward-thinking and growing markets from Niagara outwards!

A beach, a harbour, a Sanctuary

Both of these places border Lake Erie, and both have different “lake” vibes. Port Colborne is the harbour town, with a scenic marina and incredibly low priced waterview properties – and it’s far enough away from other Niagara cities to have kept its small town feel. It has a couple of chill cafes – one that doubles as a flower shop, a very good craft brewery (Breakwall Brewery), and every year it hosts “Canal Days” which has brought in Blue Rodeo and 54-40 – pretty apt Canadian musical background to the town.  Fort Erie IS the border to the United States, and it’s jammed full of big, sandy beaches, including a whole beach town called Crystal Beach – which I used to frequent in my youth and has now been revitalized. This past decade the ‘Ridgeway’ area has become its own distinct community worth driving to with great hidden gem restaurants and a brewery/event hall (known concurrently as ‘Brimstone’ and ‘The Sanctuary’).  You could absolutely do a full day here, starting with a coffee and marina walk in Port, then head to the beach for some sun before dinner and a brew in Fort Erie. I call that one perfect Niagara day.

You know it, I know it, the whole world knows it

And you cannot NOT know of Niagara Falls, mainly because it is an actual natural wonder of the world. The Falls borders the United States, so living here is incredibly convenient for those working in the States, and even for those of us who prefer to pop over to the Buffalo airport for our getaways. It is worth mentioning that Niagara Falls is another city that is experiencing a growth period – not only in the tourism sector (we already have two casinos, and now a 5000 seat entertainment centre is being built at the base of the Hilton hotel there), but for the population there who may have in previous years been somewhat overlooked. I recently listened to a panel of local regional experts talking about current developments & investments in Niagara, and a multitude, and I mean multitude, of developments have been given the OK by a very motivated governing body in the Falls. On its way are a state-of-the-art hospital, a multi-use Creative Hub for arts and heritage organizations, a new Costco, and an “innovation hub” focused on digital media technologies (https://bit.ly/2TmeldE). I’ve also been involved in promoting new housing across Niagara Falls, and somehow they’re still able to build brand new homes for people under $400,000 and even closer to $300,000 there – brand new!! Enough said?

I know I may have missed a few communities in the Niagara Region – Pelham, Fonthill, Wainfleet to name a few – but if I haven’t lost you yet with all of this writing, I know I will if I keep gushing on. So, I’ll sum it up here instead. Niagara is a serious contender for the G.O.A.T. place to be, live, and love your life. Already. Can you imagine once all of these new developments are complete? I’ll be here, downtown, with a beer sour ready for your arrival.

Real, unfiltered, not at all embarrassing newspaper clipping of me dressed up as a 1900s era Mennonite in my illustrious role as historical interpreter at the Jordan Historical Museum circa 2003. Co-Mennonite, my lifelong friend Sarah. Dog, unknown.

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