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Building by building, North Railway Street is being transformed

August 15, 2018

“When we first started here in 2005 it was pretty desolate,” says Peggy Gizen, who has successfully re-developed a couple of properties on Medicine Hat’s North Railway Street. “The growth in the last two years has been tremendous.”

Located in the River Flats neighbourhood, North Railway is one of Medicine Hat’s first commercial and industrial streets. Fronted by the Canadian Pacific Railway Station, a recognized heritage railway station, North Railway and adjacent streets are an eclectic mix of restaurants, light industrial businesses and nightclubs.

Peggy Gizen started renovating heritage buildings on North Railway Street in 2005.

Buoyed by Medicine Hat’s booming local economy, North Railway has seen significant investment by local entrepreneurs in recent years, according to Ryan Jackson, CEO of Invest Medicine Hat.

“With the river berm nearing completion, and with Aurora Sun under construction, people have the confidence they need to invest in the River Flats,” says Jackson. “It’s an exciting time.”

The current transformation is being driven by entrepreneurs like Gizen and her husband, Dennis German, who bought a portion of the historic Baker Block in 2005. Following six months of intense renovations, the couple transformed the North Railway property into a charming studio and meeting place with an upstairs apartment. Gizen and German also completed Priscilla Apartments, another Baker Block renovation aimed at the short term rental market.

It isn’t only Gizen and German who have completed projects on North Railway in recent years.

In 2015, Josh Swanson converted an old retail space into the Summit Art & Sports Center, a not-for-profit event space, indoor skate park, and co-work environment catering to entrepreneurs, photographers, and skateboarders. Since opening, a number of small businesses have launched out of the 5,500 square foot space.

“There has been a lot of change on this street since we first moved in.” – Josh Swanson

“There has been a lot of change on this street since we first moved in,” says Swanson. “Having Heartwood Cafe has brought even more people to North Railway Street,” he adds, referring to North Railway’s newest addition.

Josh Swanson renovated former retail space on North Railway Street and opened the Summit Art & Sports Center in 2015.

In early 2018, Heartwood Cafe doubled its footprint when it renovated a former pub and restaurant into a trendy new cafe featuring a locally-sourced menu, craft beer on tap, and live music. “I could see a lot of potential in the building,” recalls owner Meghan Bidinger of the new location.  “It had some hidden character and there was already a commercial kitchen in place.”

Popular with the lunch crowd, it’s now difficult to find parking during the day but the cafe is a short walk from Medicine Hat’s bustling downtown.

Owner Meghan Bidinger (right) moved Heartwood Cafe from 3rd Street SE to North Railway Street in January 2018.

Further up the road from North Railway is one of Medicine Hat’s most ambitious redevelopment projects. Medalta in the Historic Clay District is investing nearly $1 million to convert a former Medicine Hat Brick and Tile office into an on-site artist lodge that will feature 13 private bedrooms centred around a common area.

“We need a safe and convenient place for artists to live while they are here for their residency,” says Aaron Nelson, executive director of Medalta. Medalta’s artist-in-residency program draws leading ceramicists from around the world for periods of time ranging from one day to one year.

“The project is 70% funded and renovations are 90% complete,” says Nelson. “We’re actively seeking donors to help us reach the finish line.”

Aaron Nelson, executive director of Medalta, stands next to a kiln at the Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics.

From North Railway to Medalta, the River Flats neighbourhood is in the midst of a slow but steady transformation from Western Canada’s original manufacturing hub into one of Alberta’s most creative communities.

For her part, Gizen simply hopes to see Medicine Hat’s history preserved and enhanced. “I bought my first house when I was 17 and remodeled it,” she says. “I like old buildings and I hate to see them rot and torn down.”