Two weeks ago we reported on plans to build two 100+ unit low-income apartment buildings on Gottingen Street, one on the site of the former Diamonds bar, the other at the much-neglected Mitchell's Environmental Treasures building.
Between the two sits Alteregos Coffee Shop and Halifax Backpackers hostel (2193 Gottingen Street), both owned by Michelle Strum. Most business owners would be horrified by the prospect of major construction taking place on either side of her, but Strum seems entirely nonplussed. "I've been dealing with that building for five years," she says of the rat-infested, roof-collapsing MET building. "Sure, we'll have a down-time of construction, but after that things will be better than ever."
More surprisingly still, Strum is making a major investment in Gottingen Street: She is buying the former Darrells Pool building, four doors down at 2171 Gottingen. Barring some unexpected turn of events, that sale should be finalized July 31.
Her plan is to use the upstairs of the Darrells building to expand Backpackers' bed count from 36 to 60. That includes a few private rooms but the hostel will "stay really budget," says Strum. With 4,500 square feet on each of the two Darrells floors, Strum can get the increase in bed space and also eliminate the boarding space now on the first floor of the existing Backpackers building. That in turn will free up space to expand Alteregos, “and especially the kitchen,” she says---a much needed opening up of a tight retail space.
There’s a synergy between Backpackers, Alteregos and The Hub, as groups from out-of-town on a limited budget need both inexpensive accomodations and meeting space. Strum mentions as an example the NDP Youth convention that recently came to Halifax---that group had to stay at several locations scattered around town and find meeting space where they could; after the purchase of Darrells, such a group can stay at the hostel and meet downstairs.
A different kind of entrepreneur
Strum is a breath of fresh air in a business community that often seems straight-jacketed by old ways of doing business.
It's telling that as other downtown businesses ask for $100 million or more in taxpayer money to attract high-end conventions to town, Strum is tackling the lower-end convention and travel business on her own dime, using a regular bank loan to finance the purchase of Darrells, and doing the renovation work herself.
And her support for Gottingen Street is both wide and deep. She has committed to staying on the street---"We've become a Gottingen institution, and we want to grow with it," she says.
More, she has committed to helping, and not displacing, the struggling community around her businesses. Strum hires from within the community, typically through the Youth Empowerment Project's mentoring program. "Mentoring is my thing," she says, "and this expansion will actually let me step back a little bit from the day-to-day operation and concentrate on mentoring." She now has about eight employees; post-expansion she envisions hiring an additional 10 to 15.
Likewise, although they're still working out details, Strum and McCrae hope to use some of the street frontage of the Darrells building for some business incubation space. "Someone is making something they think they can sell, but they can't fill a whole store, so they'll be able to rent shelf space, or a wall," explains Strum. "We can hire someone to work that space, too. It's mentoring around employment, but also mentoring for entrepreneurship."
Strum and Mcrae plan to move quickly. After they take possession of the Darrells building in August, they'll immediately start renovating it, with hopes of making the Backpackers move by March of next year.