How did Welland become a hotbed for sport management talent? – Toronto Star, Nov. 27, 2014

Good news in the news!

This article quickly spread like wildfire among Wellanders on social media. An excellently written piece on Welland that will make anyone from here proud!

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WELLAND—Even as a teenager, Stacey Allaster knew she wanted to work in the world of sport. She’d leave home at seven in the morning and not return until 10 o’clock at night, her days crammed full of tennis, soccer practices or hours spent skiing on a tiny hill in Niagara.

“At the Welland Tennis Club, so many of the adult members were supportive of me, a young teenage girl,” Allaster recalls.

Decades later, as CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, the tables are somewhat turned: now, she’s making global stars of female athletes.

Allaster’s rise to the top — Forbes magazine has called her one of the ‘Most Powerful Women in Sports’ — is an inspiring Welland success story. But she’s not the only woman from this Niagara city of 50,000 leading the way for athletes.

Michele O’Keefe, executive director at Canada Basketball, grew up in Welland. So did Kelly Murumets, president and CEO of Tennis Canada, Susan Kitchen, executive director of the Coaches Association of Ontario, and Sandra Gage, chief marketing and communications officer for FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015.

They’re all about the same age, and all shared the same sporting experience that this somewhat sleepy city provided. Tennis, soccer, basketball, rowing, skiing — they did it all. Their paths crossed on the track, on the field, at competitions. They shared coaches, mentors and friends.

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So how did so many Welland women wind up in the upper echelons of sport?

“It’s something in the water in the Niagara region, I always say,” Gage jokes, down the line from her Ottawa office.

There’s more to it, of course. When you talk to residents of Welland — both past and present — they point to the athletic culture that’s woven into the civic fabric.

Stretches of farmland and country roads lead into Welland, dissected by its famous canal at the midway point between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. It’s quaint and unassuming, with rows of wartime homes and simple storefronts harkening back to another era. But under that bucolic exterior, Welland seems to be a hotbed for sports management talent.

The city is home to dozens of sport organizations and clubs, and Welland’s Sports Wall of Fame — featuring over a hundred athletes, coaches and sports writers — is proudly displayed at the unassuming Seaway Mall.

Residents of the Rose City (Welland’s civic nickname) can rattle off the names of the women who’ve left to lead sporting organizations, and it really seems as if everyone knows everyone.

In a phone call from her Florida office, Allaster recalls falling in love with tennis after moving to Welland as a child.

Now 51, Allaster remembers being chosen for a tennis scholarship as an eighth grader in the 1970s, and spending every summer over the next decade at the Welland Tennis Club. She remembers her first job, cleaning the red clay courts in exchange for 25 cents or a can of pop. She also remembers becoming a certified teaching professional at 16, recruiting over a hundred young players for a junior program, and getting her first paycheck — for $15.

Allaster has come a long way since then. The WTA is a leader in women’s sports, was founded by former world No. 1 professional tennis player Billie Jean King and, in 2013, its tournament prize money hit the $118 million mark. But those memories of growing up and playing sports in Welland remain.

“I think sport just surrounded me,” she says.

“It’s a big sports town,” echoes O’Keefe, who started playing basketball in Welland in Grade 7. “People are always participating when they’re young, and stay involved.”

That’s definitely been O’Keefe’s experience. Now 50, she gets fired up talking about Ontario’s growing club system and recent Canadian drafts into the WNBA. It’s that love for the game that keeps bringing O’Keefe back to her roots, first as a program co-ordinator for Canada Basketball in 1994, and later as a coach in Burlington. Seven years ago, after a stint in banking, she started looking into opportunities with Ontario Basketball, and later became Canada Basketball’s executive director.

She played on the same team as Gage, who is looking forward to next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, even though she was never a soccer player.

“It goes back to what I learned about the value of sport, and I learned that in Welland,” Gage, 47, says. “It gave me somewhere to belong.”

That sense of belonging seems to stem from the connections fostered within Welland’s community — including relationships that have stood the tests of time and distance, with Allaster now living in Florida, Gage in Ottawa and the other three women in the Toronto area.

Meeting for the Star’s photo shoot one night in the lobby of Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre, a slick, modern facility carved out of the historic Maple Leaf Gardens, the five Welland women reunite in a flurry of hugs and laughter. Once the shoot wraps up, Murumets dashes to a dinner, but the other women say they’re going to grab drinks together. There’s no shortage of conversation, ranging from sports management shop talk to shared hometown memories.

Allaster and Gage both graduated from Notre Dame high school; Murumets, Kitchen and O’Keefe from Welland Centennial. Their paths crossed in various ways, from shared coaches to mutual friends. Allaster once taught O’Keefe tennis lessons, and O’Keefe was even in Gage’s older sister’s bridal party. It’s a small town thing, they say.

Allaster also has a childhood link to Paul Beeston, president of the Toronto Blue Jays and one of the most recognizable sports management success stories from Welland. She once lived right next door to his parents and shoveled their sidewalk in the winter.

O’Keefe says she always felt part of a team while growing up in Welland, and was particularly inspired by coaches, like Margaret Clark, who fueled her long-lasting love of basketball.

Clark, now 73, is still in Welland, living on a quiet street in the south end. Sitting on her living room couch, she looks back fondly on her time coaching in the 1970s and 1980s, and recalls working with both Gage and O’Keefe when they were teenagers.

“One of the things I notice now is the kids play the sport because they like it . . . but these kids from before, they lived for it,” she says. “It was part of their life.”

Murumets played all sorts of sports, including tennis, track and field, basketball and volleyball while attending Welland Centennial. The 51-year-old — whose resume includes a seven-year stint as president and CEO of ParticipACTION — went to 10 different schools throughout her childhood, the frequent moves caused by her father’s job as a bank manager.

“Sport was my way of quickly integrating,” she explains.

Murumets took over Tennis Canada in March 2014 and recalls having a close relationship with her coaches.

“We didn’t just play basketball with our coaches,” she says. “We babysat their kids and taught their kids swimming lessons and went sailing with their families.”

Kitchen had a similar experience as a high school student in the late 1970s. The 53-year-old head of the Ontario Coaches Association recalls students knowing everyone on staff, including their coaches.

“A coach is often where young people go to,” she says.

Though they’ve all left Welland, they still credit the wealth of athletic opportunities and the town’s love of sport for their success.

But still: Why Welland?

How did this one small city with a five-digit population, located hours away from any major Canadian sports centre, produce some of the biggest female names in sports management?

Maybe, just maybe, there really is something in the water.

Article and photos from Toronto Star.

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Cordage Green

Something really exciting is developing on the east end near Southworth St. and MacCabe Ave., and that is the Cordage Green development.

Cordage Green will be Welland’s newest sustainable neighbourhood.

What makes this different than other townhouse developments is all in the details. This will be a 44 unit, two storey townhouse project, aiming to be the first below-market-cost multi-residential Passive House project in Canada. Each townhome will be solar-powered and efficiently built with natural building materials in a way that utilizes the sun to its maximum potential – saving homeowners up to 90% off the typical heating bill. Emphasis is on helping low-income households and even minimum wage earners obtain home-ownership with just 1% down.

Beyond all that, there will be a natural playground. Natural playgrounds use items found in nature – typically rocks, tree stumps, brush, branches, logs and water – instead of the typical plastic and metal structures and bringing kids back to nature to play.

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Photo: Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds

The next information session is this Sunday, November 30. Register ASAP to attend.

Niagara Street South

Niagara Street South has had empty storefronts for quite some time. It’s an issue Welland has been trying to remedy for years. It seems though, that the perfect storm has arrived with these spots filling up at a really great rate this winter.

We already covered the old Sleep Country storefront and its repurposing as BLX’s Phantom Gallery. ReChic Painted Furniture found great success since opening in spring at 1 Niagara St. (EDIT: ReChic has since moved to a new location on Broadway – congrats on the expansion!) Major renovations are in full force at at the old Bridge Pub, purportedly turning this piece of prime real estate into two new businesses – a home decor store and pub.

Last month, Lucas Spinosa announced his plans to open the Black Sheep Lounge in the space formerly known as Times Square Rocks nightclub next to his parents’ bakery, Spinosa’s Bakery. Many would agree this is just the kind of space Welland needs.

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Lucas Spinosa of Black Sheep Lounge

The Black Sheep Lounge is a fresh and inexpensive alternative to the traditional Café/Snackbar. It will be focused on delivering an exceptional coffee in an art-centred environment. It will feature local acoustic acts, and artists of all kinds. Seating for 45-50 people, fully licensed, and furnished with lounge seating, traditional seating, and an internet bar.

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Opening in Summer 2015!

It’s All Welland Good. workshop

Last night, a group of 16 concerned and motivated individuals gathered at Niagara Sport & Social on Rice Road to talk about Welland’s future. An event that spun off from the widely popular It’s All Welland Good reunion, this was a more intimate gathering with the aim of discussing Welland’s future.

Welland is no longer a manufacturing hub. It doesn’t pretend to be and as a community, we need to let that go and figure out what Welland actually is. Instead of dwelling on the past, we need to decide what we are now about, what defines us. Is Welland a college town? Are the waterways central to the city? What is Welland’s spark, our defining marker that sets us apart and is the reason we all live here? Only when we define Welland can we move forward with direction.

It was all agreed that Niagara College’s students are a widely untapped resource in Welland. These are thousands of students with money who decide to make Welland their home for up to 3 years at a time (that’s if they end up going home after graduating) and nothing has been done to utilize them for the greater good of downtown. Businesses downtown that attract this demographic are in dire need. Bars and restaurants geared to under-30 and a coworking environment were both brought up as options. All buses lead downtown: there is no reason we should not be pushing these students to the area. In fact, it may be the missing link we’ve been looking for all these years.

Another concern is the huge lack of development along our canals. Welland is very lucky to have such a huge abundance of water and waterways, yet less than 10% of that land is actually utilized. Shops, campgrounds and small cafes were all great ideas. In nearly every other municipality that has a layout similar to that of Welland has development along waterways.

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Photo: Jay Zen Kalryzian

One thing was agreed upon, and that is the need to stop talking and start DOING. Will you join us?

$4.2 M expansion set for Niagara College’s Welland campus

Niagara College’s Welland campus just received a $4.2 M grant from the provincial government for the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre at the Rankin Technology Centre.

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Artist’s rendering of the Niagara College Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre

The expansion will provide local small and medium-sized enterprises with one-stop access to assistance through applied research from its faculty, staff and students including: pre-project market assessment, business services, technology projects, infrastructure and equipment, people and expertise, and post-project go-to-market plans.

It will also offer yet another opportunity for the college’s students to have meaningful hands-on experience in the community. Relationships with local manufacturers are in the works with Kwik-Mix and W.S. Tyler already on board.

More info: http://news.ontario.ca/tcu/en/2014/11/support-for-the-niagara-college-advanced-manufacturing-innovation-centre.html

Welland’s Phantom Gallery

We will admit it: Welland has an issue with abandoned buildings. Now, it’s not a dire situation, but the situation is there and needs to be met head on. We can’t keep using the excuse, “it could always be worse.” Welland should not want to be a step above worse. We should always be striving to be better.

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Things are rolling. Last week’s post in Good News in Welland covered four new small businesses that are opening their doors or expanding just in the last month, and two of them are in abandoned storefronts. But there are still some pretty big (and pretty ugly) empty spaces. Why aren’t businesses rushing at the opportunity to open in these large spaces in high traffic areas and what can we do to fix that? That’s a whole new post.

In case you’ve been living under a bridge, or you know, just haven’t travelled down south Niagara St. lately, the old Sleep Country space has been converted to a Phantom Gallery. Created to showcase local artists and improve the look of abandoned buildings, Phantom Galleries have popped up in spaces across the world, and the latest one is in Welland.

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James Takeo of Black Lantern Experience. (Photo: Allen Benner, Welland Tribune)

The Black Lantern Experience has completely transformed the look of the old building and people are noticing. This is a perfect example of people in the community coming together to make Welland a better place, even if temporarily. Perhaps an ‘uprising’ of determined folks with ideas and a gathering of resources is all that’s needed to beautify Welland with a much needed facelift in our arts and culture sector.

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Public graffiti art, anyone?

Full House at Welland’s Save Our Hospital Meeting

The possibility of our hospital closing is not good news. But the gathering of Welland’s residents, and their concern and passion for the good of our city and its residents is.

It was standing room only at last night’s Save Our Hospital meeting in the Welland Civic Square’s Community Room where over 100 people packed the room to discuss the fate of the Welland hospital.

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Natalie Mehra Executive Director of Ontario Health Coalition, Sue Hotte, co-chair of Niagara Health Coalition and Fiona McMurran headed the conversation that lasted almost two hours.

A call is being put out to join 10,000 people from across Ontario that are heading to Queen’s Park on November 21 to rally against the proposed closure. Fort Erie and Port Colborne recently lost their emergency departments, but were also slated to close completely. After a rally of 4000 people, those hospitals were left open.

How can you help?

From Welland Tribune:

Hotte said the local coalition is organizing buses to bring south Niagara residents to Queen’s Park for the rally, and she asked people to call her at 905-932-1646 if they’re interested in taking advantage of the free ride to the rally, or being part of a committee they’re planning to set up and run a very visible and vocal campaign that could include yard signs and billboards.

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Full story, more info:

Welland Tribune article by Allen Benner: http://www.wellandtribune.ca/2014/11/07/get-involved-or-say-goodbye-to-your-hospital

Allen Benner’s column: http://www.wellandtribune.ca/2014/11/07/benner-get-involved-or-say-goodbye-to-your-hospital