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May. 21, 2022 | Saturday
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St. Davids brewery entrepreneur glad construction finally can resume
The Grist interior. (Supplied)

Rob Begin is happy construction crews can resume building his new restaurant and brewery in St. Davids.

The project was shut down during the provincewide lockdown, but the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake gave him the green light to continue work Feb. 16.

Begin said finishing touches are just being done now on The Grist, a project he's been working on for three years with his family.

He had been worried with Niagara remaining in grey-lockdown status that he wouldn't be able to get back to work. He said his lawyer initially was told by the town it was unlikely he would be able to resume work.

"I thought, 'My God, that's just absolutely nuts that everybody else is going to be at 25 per cent capacity in a mall and I'm not allowed to have five guys do construction.' "

He said one of the frustrations of being shut down is it's hard to just pick up where you left off, mainly because contractors find other work they can do while things are shut down.

"So when my trades leave, they go on, they have jobs that they're still doing," he said. "Like my plumber said they were going to be in this week, but because we've been down for two weeks they took on other jobs."

Throughout the process, there have been other hurdles, including a lengthy site plan approval process and installing a $300,000 storm system underground.

"The worst part is the town actually sent me an email saying that I didn't (need to put in the storm system), so I purchased this property with the assumption and the blessing that we wouldn't have to do it."

"That was like a $300,000 oopsie," Begin said.

He was also made to install oil and grid separators, meant to retain any oil leaked into the ground from vehicles.

"Only Walmarts and Costcos have these," he said. "Honestly, it was an extra $15,000 for this particular one that the town was adamant on having and it's like you can't win either way."

He said he doesn't want to "bad mouth the town," but feels it hasn't made the process easy.

"I love the town. I grew up over here on Line 3. My dad was a councillor for the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake for four terms. But if you understood how much we had to go through to get this thing done, you would say to yourself, 'Was it really worth it and is the town really wanting to support a local guy that's just rehabbing an old barn?' " he said.

He said the town asked him to preserve the barn when he purchased the property. 

"You feel almost like you're doing something wrong as opposed to doing something right," he said, and redoing the old barn cost a lot more than knocking it down and starting fresh would have.

"When we did it, the town said 'We really want you to save it.' I said, 'Absolutely, we're going to do it' and we didn't add once one square inch to that building. And when we got our development charges, the (town) said 'OK, here's the bill, $78,000' and I said to them, 'OK, that's for a full tilt for a new building, we have an existing one, we haven't done anything to it, we're renovating it. And they said, 'No, no, you have to pay full tilt."

He said after trying to ask the town for help, he had to pay full development charges for a new build on the renovation. The town also tried to charge him $11,000 in parkland dedication fees, which the previous owner had already paid.

He said "after much discussion" the town let him pay the difference based on the change in property value.

However, the municipality would not accept his three-month old appraisal and he was forced to pay another $2,000 to get a new one done.

"So I had to pay out of my pocket an additional $2,000 to get an appraisal dated that specific day, so that they could make a determination on what my parkland dedication fees were."

He said he questions whether the system in NOTL encourages people to do things above board.

"Everybody is into self-preservation, so if they can say yes or no, they'll just say no. It's to protect themselves, it's just easier to say no," Begin said.

He said it's been tough, adding there's nobody "with deep pockets that is financing this thing."

"So, in the end, I made a decision to do all the (general contracting) on this project myself and I'm sure that things probably would have gone faster had I paid several hundred thousand to somebody else to do, but I just don't have that kind of money," he said.

Now, instead of dwelling on the obstacles he faced, he's looking forward to having his brewery opened.

"It's been real challenging for us but I always say that I hope that it's all going to be worth it in the end. I really like the place. I think that it's going to be a real value to the locals in the area and that's what we're trying to appeal to,"

About 20 years ago, his family operated Garcioles Pizza where the Sandtrap Pub and Grill is now and his dream was to once again build something for locals, but in a different way.

The property wasn't even up for sale when he bought it – he and his wife just had a dream and made a phone call.

"We just drove by the one day and I said to my wife 'I'm gonna call the guy up and see if he wants to sell the property and, you know what, 24 hours later we had a deal worked out, and it happened to be a guy that used to live on the same street that I was living on, on Line 3. Rainer (Hummel), go figure."

He said he's mentioned his struggles to Hummel.

Begin said he's not sure when The Grist will be opening and is deciding whether it's best to open right away or to wait until pandemic restrictions are lightened. Until he gets his occupancy permit, he's still paying farmland property taxes, so he's losing less money than he would if he opened and was forced to close right away.

"The minute that I open for occupancy, I go from $1,200 to $32,000 a year," he said, adding there are other initial costs like insurance, staff and food.

He also doesn't want to have to lay off any newly hired staff.

Whenever The Grist opens, he said it won't be rushed.

"You only have one time to make an impression on somebody," he said.

If a mistake is made, "it's gonna do more damage to us than it is if we just stay closed and make sure that we're ready to open up in the proper way."

"I really am going to be excited once we finally do open and I think everybody's going to be real happy with what we're trying to do here."